Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

What is Wrong With the World?

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” goes the French proverb credited to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s not that a society or organization cannot be transformed. But such change is often cosmetic or superficial. Reality isn’t altered at the deeper, more profound levels.

Simply examine today’s news feeds. There is conflict in the Middle East; fresh bloodshed in Iraq; a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Africa; upheaval with Russia; political unrest at home; is it 2014 or 1985 or 1978 or 1959 or 1913? Has nothing changed within these geopolitical situations? Of course, everything has changed.

There have been new regimes, new faces, and new promises; the old guard has passed; generations have come and gone; the young and the restless have replaced the traditional and the settled. But the root issues and causes – things like greed, selfishness, sexism, patriarchy, racism, and tribalism, remain untouched.

Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world; but no one thinks of changing himself.” Everything we see in the larger world – the good, the bad, and the ugly – is a reflection of the individual, human heart. You can’t maintain a sane world when everyone in it is crazy. So we can’t begin with the world. We have to begin with our own hearts.

One of the greatest British writers of the 20th century was G.K. Chesterton. He was great in size – a 300 pound, mountain of a man – and great with his words: Newspaper articles, short stories, essays, novels, theology, and poetry. But my favorite essay of his is a tiny one written to his local newspaper, The London Times.

The editors solicited responses from the paper’s readership by asking this question: “What is wrong with the world?” Hundreds of long, verbose letters poured in. Then eminent authors and leading thinkers of the day were asked to respond to the question. The shortest and most powerful response to “What is wrong with the world?” came from Chesterton.  He wrote: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

If anything about this world is going to change, it will be you (It’s worth re-reading that line), and the change cannot be cosmetic, superficial, or an artificial cover-up. Change must be at the heart, deep within, where our darkness lurks, our transgressions take shelter, and where all our spiritual neurosis is born.

One of Jesus’ more interesting parables is about a person who gets free of an evil spirit. Some time later, the spirit returns and finds the person’s life swept clean and in order. The spirit moves back in with all his malicious friends, and the person’s condition is worse in the end than in the beginning.

It’s plain what Jesus is saying. Cosmetic change doesn’t work. Clean the junk out of your heart. Wash the windows of your soul. Change the drapes and the sheets. Run the vacuum cleaner and replace the litter box. Your life will be as clean and as neat as a pin. But if you don’t allow God’s Spirit to take up transformative residence in that now orderly space you have created – to effect real change – then all the rubbish you sent to the curb will be back in spades. Ask any recovering addict if this isn’t true.

People want to change their lives (at least some people), but they don’t “put the question marks deep enough” in searching for their answers. They don’t dive into the depths of their hearts to open those locked closets and cast light on the shadowy basements. They refuse to do the work of the soul, and thusly, refuse to change.

So while I’m quoting Karr, Tolstoy, Chesterton, and Jesus, I’ll add one more great philosopher to the list. Bob Dylan wrote, “There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls, for the times they are a changin’.” True, but the real battle is on the inside, inside each of our hearts; for if the world is going to change, the change must begin right there.

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

Another Brick in the Wall

Janet Hagberg was the first person who defined the experience for me. I had lived through it, but I didn’t know what to call it. In a book entitled, “The Critical Journey,” Janet called the experience, simply, “The Wall.” My summary goes like this. Many people begin their walk of faith, and everything goes as they expected. Out of genuine conviction, they attend church, learn from the Scriptures, volunteer, serve, give, and become “productive, committed, faithful, Christians” (whatever that exactly means, who knows?). But somewhere along the way things go wrong. Terribly wrong.

The orderly, stalwart faith that used to “work” for these true believers becomes a muddled mess. Yes, they once taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, chaperoned the youth group, chaired the Stewardship Committee, and had bullet-proof answers to all questions of faith. But then, all at once or over an extension of time, their faith splintered into a million tiny pieces.

The woman, who was taught that living a godly life would protect her marriage, goes through a divorce. The church to which a pastor gave his best years, his heart and soul, fires him because of some petty transgression or because he didn’t go visit a prominent church member who was in the hospital with the gout. A child falls deathly ill and heaven seems silent as a stone, all while the godly parents pray for a miracle. A husband/father dies, leaving behind a young wife and even younger children. An accident leaves the once healthy college student broken and mutilated, physically and spiritually.

The circumstances come in variegated form, but the impact is the same. It is more than a crisis of faith, more than theological bump in the road; these are an unraveling that robs people of their confidence and comfort. The once unshakable believer descends downward into the blackness of doubt, what Saint John of the Cross called “the Dark Night of the Soul.” Adding insult to injury, sometimes the only thing the church or we ministerial types can say in those moments is, “Why don’t you pray more? Just believe. Let go and let God. Confess your sin. Try harder.” Not only is this insensitive, asinine advice, it simply won’t work. Those who have hit “The Wall” feel so lost and adrift, so dismantled at their very core, that to keep doing what they were doing – only with more enthusiastic dedication – is impossible.

Like a bug striking a windshield, a sledgehammer falling on clods of dirt, or a ball sent through a bay window, “The Wall” breaks faith and people apart. I wish it were different. I wish such pain could be avoided. I wish there was a way to get over, under, or around these types of experiences, but if you live long enough, you will feel your faith being smashed and shattered. The only question left is, “What will come out of the splintered and scattered pieces?”

Here is your choice: You can harden your heart and sweep the shards of your faith into the dustpan, giving up on faith and God completely; or you can pick up the broken pieces, with bloody hands and heart, and reassemble faith on the other side of doubt.

No, it won’t be the same faith you once had; rather, it will be dramatically different. It won’t be an improved or updated version of the beliefs you formerly held; no, it will be a new construction altogether. This reassembled faith will not provide you with all the answers to all your questions; instead, it will help you to see the world, God, and people differently. Faith on the other side of “The Wall” will not take you back to where you were; it will move you forward to where you must be.

So if you find yourself crushed against what feels like the concrete and steel of disbelief, with not a drop of faith left in you, I understand. Don’t throw it all away just yet. In the breaking, you might find that faith has a new beginning.

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.

Love is the Final Word

This is the first year of the official September 11th Museum and Memorial. Located underground, on the foundation stones of the World Trade Center Towers, it contains more than 10,000 artifacts of the day, 23,000 pictures, and an archive of more than 500 hours of video.

Within the collection of artifacts and archives there is also an assembly of audio recordings; Final conversations of those in the towers as they called home, spouses, parents, partners, friends, and left voice mails. Rabbi Irwin Kula is responsible for collecting a good many of these conversations.

In the days after 9/11 he began seeking out the last words and sentences of anyone he could find who was killed that day. He took those words and adapted them into a chant for his synagogue. The tune and meter of the chant he chose was traditionally about the destruction of the Jewish temple. He thought it appropriate for the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.

What he discovered was not only that the words fit the traditional chant perfectly, but also this: All the final conversations he had in his collection were about love. Not a single person used his or her last breathe to say, “Kill those bastards for what they have done…Be sure to get revenge…I hate them for what they did to me…Avenge my memory.” Every last word was an “I love you” of some variety.

Here is what Rabbi Kula learned, “Then I recognized what the real Torah, the real wisdom…the real experience behind religion is…it is about love…and it’s no more complicated than that. As a rabbi, my community of rabbis, and I think priests, ministers, and monks – we’ve made it a lot more complicated than it is. When you make it more complicated than it is, you lose the experience.” Beautifully said.

As I understand the Bible, particularly as I read it through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth, God isn’t much into religion. He’s not interested in carving up the world along tribal or cultic lines. He’s not officiating a spiritual contest, declaring winners and losers in who can most strongly declare how right they are. That’s all much too complicated. Rather, he works to put the world on the right path, on the road to redemption, on the way of love.

Jesus came to reveal God’s love to us, to draw it out of us, to show us that love is the beginning, the means, the path, and the end; it’s the only road to travel. This is what Jesus meant, I believe, when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The only way to know God is through the doorway of redeeming love. To choose a different path is to more than “lose the experience,” it is to absolutely corrupt it.

I suppose this makes me an “exclusivist;” one who denies that all religious paths are equal and simply have their own unique twists and turns along the way. No, I do not believe such a thing, for the morbid irony is that religion brought down those iconic towers more than a decade ago. Hard. Inflexible. Dogmatic. Immovable religion (And such religion can be perpetuated as easily by we who are “Christian” as any other group).

God surely can’t be associated with anything of the sort, no matter what name it is called or however right and correct it purports to be. God must be – absolutely must be – in what is loving, absolving, and just, not destructive. For love is what saves us. It is what gives us life. It is the only thing that overcomes hate and injustice. It is the only way.

Memorials built to honor those who have suffered and died as the result of hate are appropriate, and we should “never forget.” But let us never forget that neither hate nor religion will have the last word. That word has already been spoken; in the words of Dorothy Day, “Love is the final word.”

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.

I Remember

I was in the hardware store when I first heard the news, though I did not know what I was hearing. As the cashier tallied my purchase, I overheard a reporter on the store’s radio make the peculiar announcement that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. At the time, I thought of it as little more than a curiosity. How wrong I was.

It’s been thirteen years since that September morning, and still I can recall the horror and heroics of that day. The pancaking towers, the daring and duty-bound firefighters, the dust-soaked city of New York, and the ash-covered-walking-wounded, stumbling like ghosts through Manhattan.

Each September since 9/11, when the proper and solemn remembrance ceremonies begin, I am tempted to believe the now faded bumper stickers that were so common in the months following the tragedy: The stickers read, “We Will Never Forget.” Not true. We will forget.

No, those who lived in the cities directly attacked will never forget. Those who huddled around television sets as bewildered and confused witnesses will never forget. And of course, those who buried their loved ones murdered in the attacks would easier forget their own names as forget that Tuesday morning.

But those following us will forget. They are not calloused or forgetful. They are simply too young. Most of the students who entered college this fall were in elementary school ten years ago, and many of this generation (including my own children), were even younger or not yet born.

This is more than a generation that thinks Starbucks and cell phones were created shortly after Adam and Eve; that can text eighty words a minute, but can’t write in cursive; that has never known the limitation of having only three network television channels, and can’t imagine life without Google and YouTube. This is a generation that will come to maturity in the shadow of a dreadful event not even in their collective memory.

Yes, I want my children (and the generations to come) to remember and reflect upon these events. I want them to forever hold in their memory the suffering and injustice of that day and the days that have followed. But I do not want them to cloud their memories with the notion that the “world was changed forever on 9/11,” for it was not.

Violence, retaliation, the suffering of the innocent, and the struggle for power have been around for all of human history. 9/11, rather than changing that status quo, was another brutal, heart-rending chapter in the same narrative. To say that 9/11 is the defining, irreversible mark on human history is to give evil and injustice far too much credit; and for followers of Jesus to say such a thing, it is a loss faith.

Consider, that whenever Christians gather, they gather to remember, celebrate, and hopefully integrate into their lives a profound event from the past, an event to which the Eucharist and the Creeds point: “Jesus Christ was crucified, dead, and was buried; but on the third day he rose again.”

Our faith informs us that Jesus took all the hate, evil, retaliation, death, and rejection the world could muster, and when the world had done its worst, he responded with his best. He overcame all of these with resurrected life, goodness, and hope. This is the defining event of our past, the memory we will never forget, and the trajectory for our future.

Yes, I will bow my head and say a prayer for those taken away from us a decade ago. I will give thanks for the rescue workers, the firefighters, and those who tried to save and serve the hurt and dying. I will ask God to assuage the sorrow of the families and friends left to grieve.

But when I am finished praying, I will work for peace; I will seek to overcome evil with good; I will pursue the example of Jesus; and I will teach my children to remember properly. Remember that love, not hate, will have the final word.

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.