Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

The Gift of Mercy

Some years ago I read about Charles Brown, a World War 2 pilot on his first mission, just before Christmas, 1943. His B-17 had been shot to pieces by German fighters and anti-aircraft guns. Half his crew was wounded, his tail gunner was dead, and he was flying alone over Germany, barely able to keep the plane aloft.

Then, as if things could not be more desperate, Brown looked to his left and locked eyes with Franz Stigler, an ace German fighter pilot flying no more than a few feet off the B-17’s wing. Brown’s blood went cold; this was the end.

Stigler, the German pilot, was thirsty for revenge. The Allied forces were responsible for his brother’s death, and they had been relentlessly bombing his country’s cities. Now he had a chance to retaliate. But as he came up behind the low-flying bomber, he recognized that it was shot to pieces. He could see the dead and wounded crew inside.

Stigler, with one hand on the trigger and another on his rosary, couldn’t shoot. Instead, he nodded at Brown and protectively escorted the bomber over the North Sea and to the edge of Allied airspace. He took one last look at the American pilot, saluted, and peeled away.

Brown landed safely, survived the war and eventually returned home where he would marry, have children, go to work for the State Department, and retire in Florida. But the older he got, the more Brown thought about that December day above Germany. He decided that he must find that German pilot.

His search was showing little progress when he received an unexpected letter. It was from Franz Stigler! It read, “Dear Charles, all these years I wondered what happened to that B-17, did she make it or not?” Stigler was now retired in Canada and was making the same improbable search. The two pilots became best of friends, meeting as often as possible, corresponding, and talking weekly by phone.

Brown was forever grateful for Stigler’s gift of mercy – his whole life had been possible because of it. But the event changed Stigler’s life as well. He said, “In the war I lost my brother, my friends (of the 28,000 pilots who flew for the German air force, only 1,200 survived), and I lost my country. The war cost me everything. Charles Brown was the only good thing that came out of that war for me. It was the one thing I could be proud of.”

Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. A book found in Charles Brown’s library after their deaths, a gift from Stigler, had this written on the flap: “On the 20th of December, 1943, four days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying. The pilot, Charles Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother once was. Thank you Charlie. Your Brother, Franz.”

Few stories illustrate so well how transformational mercy can be. It reconciles enemies, heals old wounds, extinguishes vengeful fires, and gives life. And it accomplishes these things, not only for the recipient of mercy, but also for the one who offers mercy.

Mercy is a shared gift, a gift for both the offender and the offended; for the one who must be pardoned, and the one who pardons; for the violator and the violated. When we replace vengeance with compassion; retaliation with grace; and punishment with forgiveness, then, like no other moment, we are giving life to the world.

So who in your life could best be served by the gift of mercy this Advent Season? That old enemy? A shystering, former business partner? A parent, child, neighbor, or sibling? There’s usually no shortage of offenders, just a shortage of forgiveness. Maybe it’s finally time to ask God for the grace to grace others, to cling to your rosary, and take your finger off the trigger. The person you save might be yourself.

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

 

 

The Procession Must Go On

Hans Christian Andersen first told the now familiar story of an Emperor who spent all of his kingdom’s disposable wealth on being well dressed. He had a change of clothes for every hour of the day, and he spent more time in his dressing room than managing the affairs of his empire.

Egotistical as he was, the Emperor easily fell into the trap of two swindlers who claimed they could weave the most magnificent clothes imaginable. For a large sum of money, these two promised the Emperor that he would be dressed in the finest tailored colors and patterns, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office.

The Emperor thought, “If I wore those clothes, I would be able to discover which men in my empire are unfit for their posts; and I could tell the wise men from the fools.” Of course, the Emperor was the fool. He dressed in his “new clothes” and went off in procession through the town.

In a colossal case of group-think, nobody would confess that the Emperor was naked for fear of being called a fool. At last a little child declared the obvious: “But he hasn’t got anything on!” This rippled through the crowd until finally everyone could admit the Emperor was indeed naked and had been duped by the two swindling weavers.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected the crowd was right, but he could not admit it. He said, “The procession must go on.” So he walked more determined than ever, his head held high, proudly wearing a costume that wasn’t there. The Emperor built a bogus façade, was stubbornly living in it, and had lost the ability to be honest with himself about his condition. Be certain, that when one loses the ability to be honest, he also loses the ability to change. It’s not only true of naked Emperors; it’s true of us all.

How many people have been trapped or ruined by the words, “The procession has got to go on?” Hiding an addiction; remaining in an abusive relationship; continually apologizing and covering for the failures of a spouse, a parent, or a business partner; maintaining religious beliefs for which they longer have conviction; propping up a naked life: All because the prospect of being honest is more terrifying than the exertion of constantly camouflaging their charade.

The first and basic tenant of change, transformation, recovery, or repentance (you can choose your word) is this: One must “admit their powerlessness…and that life has become unmanageable.” For those addicted to the bottle, for those excruciatingly sensitive to what other people think, for those controlled by others, for who are just sick and tired of the life they have been leading, the beginning point is the same; the naked truth.

Some of us need to say, “I am a drunk,” because it is the truth. “I am selfish and self-centered,” because yes, we are. “I am greedy and will do anything to make a dollar off of someone,” because we will. “I am obsessed with how others view me, and I’ll do anything to gain their approval,” because that’s us.

No, we can’t wallow around in a “worm such as me” form of self-contempt, God no. That is just another destructive procession by another name. But there is no shame in admitting our actual condition; that we are weak, sometimes broken, and as needy and naked as the day we were born.

Such admissions are not easy. In fact, quite the opposite is true. It is very, very difficult because none of us wish to confess the uncomfortable truth that we have been duped or swindled out of a good portion of our lives.

But when the exhaustion of sustaining the sham, becomes stronger than our fear of being honest, the foolish procession of our lives will end and we can, by grace, be transformed. When we are honest about our open secrets, we can actually and finally change.

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.

God’s Surprises

God loves surprises. Look at David who began his career as a silly, singing cowboy of sorts, a rock throwing, shepherding whippersnapper; shockingly, he became a kingly giant slayer. There is Moses, a foreign-born, stuttering, impatient murderer of a man; wonder of wonders, he was God’s chosen deliverer. Rahab is the biblical version of Calamity Jane, running a brothel in Jericho; miraculously, she saved an entire nation.

Noah was a drunk; somehow he also built the incubator for humanity. Simon Peter was a loud-mouthed, hot-headed rambler who couldn’t shut up and wouldn’t show up when he was needed most; astonishingly, he became a Rock. Paul was a hump-backed, bug-eyed little weasel who made a living killing Christians – then he became one – and changed the trajectory of Western Civilization.

And consider the Virgin Mary. While girls her age today are engrossed with Snapchat, Taylor Swift, and whatever else comes from Hollywood or Cupertino, she was busy birthing the Son of God. What a surprise! Who could have anticipated such a thing? She was just a little girl from Nazareth – but that’s exactly what made her a wonderment.

First, she was little; that is, she was young. In the custom of her day, a woman would enter a prearranged marriage even before sitting for the SAT or getting a driver’s permit. So she was nothing but a novice. Second, she was a woman. Women in first century Palestine were not very liberated.

In fact, they were often considered property; intended for domestic labor, sexual pleasure, and the manufacture of male heirs. Some rabbis of her time were debating whether or not women even had souls. So for a woman to be used as an instrument of God was considered a scandalous anomaly.

And Mary’s third issue: She was from Nazareth. In Mary’s lifetime, there were no fewer than three major nationalistic rebellions in her hometown, and each of these insurrections were cataclysmically crushed by legions of Roman soldiers. To call Nazareth your home was to lay claim to one of the most rebellious and unruly regions of the Empire. It was a Jalalabad or Aleppo of the ancient world.

So when it is said, “Mary was just a little girl from Nazareth,” that is a statement loaded with surprising characteristics. She was the wrong age, the wrong gender, and from the wrong neighborhood. Yet, these liabilities became the very pathways for Mary’s future. These things kept her in a place of dependence upon and submission to God.

A man named Irenaeus was one of the first Christians who did serious thinking about Advent and its meaning. He came to the conclusion that Mary’s example of holy surrender was a pattern for us all; and he used a scintillating title for her. He said, “Mary is the undoer of knots.” Mary took the tangled mess she had been given and persistently worked it out, overcoming all her challenges in redemptive, surprising ways.

Pope Francis, who has loved Irenaeus’ title since he first saw Schmidtner’s baroque painting “Mary, Undoer of Knots,” as a young student in Europe, says the same. Speaking of that little girl from Nazareth and the model she gives us, he says: “There are problems and struggles we face for which we do not see any solution…They form a tangle which gets more and more painful and difficult to undo. But even the most tangled knots are loosened by God’s grace. All the knots of our heart, every knot of our conscience, can be undone.”

And then Francis says how: “Mary first conceived Jesus in faith when she said ‘Yes’ to the message God gave her. And what took place in the Virgin Mary also takes place within us. Believing in Jesus means giving him our flesh with the humility and courage of Mary, so that he can continue to dwell in our midst. May Mary help us to say ‘Yes,’ to be open to God’s surprises, for everything he gives us is a gift – even our weaknesses – so that he can become our strength.”

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

 

Chains and Change

Centuries ago, those who suffered mental illness were often committed to “madhouses.” These so-called treatment centers were about as brutal, barbaric and inhumane inventions as could be humanly conceived. Patients were subjected to various shock therapies, exorcisms, bloodlettings, ice baths, and gyration wheels. When not directly enduring these interventions, patients were generally kept in dark dungeons, chained to walls or the floor.

But by the 19th century treatment options, mercifully, began to change with the rise of the asylum. In their original form, these were sanctuaries for the ill. Dr. Samuel Tuke, a Quaker physician and minister building on the work of his grandfather, created one of the first asylums. It was a quiet country house where patients were treated, not as wild animals, but as human beings.

Dr. Tuke also broke ground with something he called “moral treatment,” and it became the foundation of mental healthcare for the next century. While being morally treated, patients were taught to dress respectably, and to behave in social settings. They were expected to watch their table manners, make polite conversation over tea, and keep their living space clean. The treatment was reinforced by constant monitoring and a system of rewards and punishments.

Outwardly, these patients looked perfectly healthy as their behavior followed the established rules in which they had been trained. It was a marked improvement, but inside the ill remained very much the same. Put the patients in situations for which they had no rules and everything collapsed. Let their monitors leave them alone for an extended period, and disaster struck. The patients could do all the right things when forced from the outside, but they had no concept of right motivation from the inside.

“Moral treatment” was a failure and highlighted a limitation as old as the human species:  People are not changed by chains – whether these chains be made of iron and steel, or made from rules and coercion. If people are going to change, it is because something happens internally, not because their external behavior has been modified.

Knowing and keeping the rules, even religious rules, is simply not a better way to live. We need a way of life that transcends our chains and changes us from inside; and that is exactly what Christ offers. Jesus strikes literally at the heart of the issue – our hearts – transforming us from the inside out, so that more rules and steeper requirements are not required.

Now, to think of spirituality without rules is a radical departure for many of us because we have based our entire connection to God on rule-keeping, “being good,” measuring up, and following the jot and tittle of every bit of “moral treatment” we have ever read. We have been patients that would make Dr. Tuke proud!

Of course, when we got out of ear or eye shot of our monitors, or when we were put into situations for which there were no exact rules, we failed to live up to these demands and were swamped with guilt, fear, and shame. Christ came to set us free from all of this, the bonds of religious legalism and the chains of disgrace.

Jesus didn’t arrive – and thanks be to God for this – with more and better rules, a heavier and stronger chain. He arrived with a transformative, liberating way to live that moves us to right thinking, right feeling, and right actions.

The always colorful Clarence Jordan explained it like this: He said “Keeping the religious rules is like chaining a vicious dog to a tree. With the dog chained in such a way the owner could then report, ‘You know, my dog has never bitten anyone. He must be a good dog.’ Wrong! The goodness of the dog is based solely upon the strength of the chain.”

Jesus’ intention is to heal and change the very nature of the human species, not to manufacture a more robust chain. By transforming the human heart, Christ shows that chains not only fail to change us, but that those chains are no longer necessary.

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.”

Hope is a Dangerous Thing

“Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” So said Red Redding to Andy Dufresne in that masterpiece, “The Shawshank Redemption.” If you have never seen the film, that is your immeasurable loss.

You should stop reading now, go find a copy or a download, and take the next three hours to soak it up. I promise that it won’t be time wasted. Morgan Freeman (as Red) and Tim Robbins (as Andy) have never been better, not even in the two decades since this movie’s release.

For the uninitiated, “Shawshank” is about life in prison. It is a story about guilt and innocence. Friendship and love. Vengeance and absolution. Struggle and injustice. It is a story about hope, and how hope can keep a man alive, even though Red had given up on hope long ago. Hope is a cruel joke, in his estimation, that convinced gullible people to long for something that was impossible to attain.

Old Red’s view of this thing called hope is largely consistent with the archaic use of the word. Ancient philosophers used hope as a synonym for dashed expectations. It was nothing but starry-eyed, false anticipation that coaxed humanity “to its undoing,” in the words of the Greek poets. Modern philosophy hasn’t changed this view, as Red could have easily been channeling Nietzsche who thought of hope as the malevolent instrument that simply prolonged human suffering.

Even for those of us who have less of a philosophical bent, or maybe we just wear glasses that are more rose-colored than Red or Nietzsche, we still struggle with hope. I mean, what is it, really? It’s an almost senseless word, the way it is tossed about. “I hope my team makes the playoffs this year…I hope they have chicken on the buffet today…I hope my oncology report is negative…I hope to graduate in the spring.” Surely hope doesn’t mean the same thing every time we use it.

But for all of hope’s ambiguity, it remains a worthy word, a necessary word, a thing of substance. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it was infinite; St. Paul said it is one of the three things that will last forever (the other two are faith and love); and Andy Defresne told Red it was “the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

In fact, that is hope’s exact definition. It is what never dies. More than human longing, more than personal aspiration, more than some head-in-the-cloud dream, it is the stuff of endurance. Look at the clinical studies and practical examples of those who have survived the worst atrocities; prisoners of war, individuals subjected to prolonged sexual abuse, or others who have experienced various traumas. The survivors always have some intangible power to bend, but not break, under the pressure.

These individuals – just regular, hardy people – endured, persevered, held on, were broken, mistreated, and suffered the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” while taking “arms against their sea of troubles.” But when the battle had ended and the waters had settled, they were found intact; hurt, but alive; battered, but not defeated. They had resiliency, which is the best synonym for hope that you can find.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who was eventually elected the first president of Czech people after the fall of the Soviet Union, defined hope as well as Andy Dufresne or anyone else could for that matter. He said, “Hope is not optimism. It is a state of mind. It is the certainty that life has meaning, regardless of how it turns out…I am not an optimist, because I’m not sure everything will end well. I just carry hope in my heart.”

Yes, “hope is a dangerous thing,” but not because it can make people crazy. It is a dangerous thing to the status quo; it gives people the tenacity to “keep on keeping on.” It gives people the power to change their world. And right now, in this world, that would be “the best of things.”

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

 

Count Your Blessings

Johnson Oatman, Jr. was a failed singer. Try as he might, he could not reach the success of his baritone-voiced father who was in high demand by churches all over New England. Largely, he was a failed minister too. An ordained Methodist, he hoped to become the next Francis Asbury or Peter Cartwright – a circuit-riding evangelist – who could turn legions of souls from perdition. He never preached in more than a few local pulpits.

But as Oatman approached his fortieth birthday, his sense of divine calling and vocational ability finally crossed paths. He began writing songs, songs to be sung in church and at the frontier revivals of the late nineteenth century. Over the next twenty years he would author some 3,000 hymns and gospel songs.

If you are part of a church that still uses hymnals or sings hymns you know Oatman’s music, even if you are unfamiliar with his name. “Worthy the Lamb;” “No, Not One;” and “Higher Ground” are a few of his tunes that can be found in almost any denominational songbook. His work with which I am most familiar is a song entitled, “Count Your Blessings.”

In the churches of my youth we sang this song at every Thanksgiving service. In fact, we seemed to sing it every other week or so. I can still recite the first stanza from memory: “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed; when you are discouraged, thinking all is lost; count your many blessings, name them one by one; and it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”

A Sunday school teacher once challenged my Primary Bible Class to do exactly as the song implored: “Count your blessings.” She handed out sheets of wide-ruled notebook paper with the red and blue lines, accompanied by fat, yellow, #2 Ticonderoga pencils. A dozen eight-year-olds went to work listing all of our heaven-sent assets, and we finished, of course, by singing Oatman’s hymn.

Have you counted your blessings lately, naming them “one by one?” I know all the “big things” would be on the list. Family, nation, shelter, food, children or grandchildren, employment; for all of these we are thankful. But to list all of our blessings, even the little things, would take a considerable amount of time, longer than a brief Sunday school lesson would allow.

Still, it’s worth taking pause to make such a list. You probably have a few days off, or at least a smidgen of down time with Thanksgiving Day coming. Use some of that time to actually catalog a few of your many practical blessings. Maybe you could start with A and work through the alphabet to Z, concentrating on the little, often assumed, godsends.

I’ll get you started: Air conditioning. Band aids. Coffee. Distilleries (particularly those in Canada). Electricity. Football. Garrison Keillor. Hamburgers. Ireland. Jackson Hole. Krispy Kreme. Live Oak trees. Music. Newspapers. Online banking. Picnics. Quinoa. Refrigeration. Smoked Almonds. Tennis. Urinals (the ones that flush automatically). Vacations. Willie Nelson. X-Rays. Yogurt. Zyrtec.

On and on it goes, and that’s just the first list that rolled off my mind, a stream of consciousness (and obviously I wrote this while hungry)! This list could be reproduced a thousand times over with little thought, just observation, because blessings constantly rain down upon me. God’s ever-present grace surrounds me. Heaven smiles down, if only because I am fortunate enough to live at a time and in a place like this.

It’s not that complicated, not really. Take the time to look around your life and count your blessings – one by little one – if you dare. Give thanks to God for what you have, what you have experienced, for the grace you have received and for the people you have known.

Try to remember that Thanksgiving is more than a holiday, more than a day off, more than a circled date on a calendar. It is a way of life. Remembering this might change your perspective about things. It might change your attitude. And it just might change your life.

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

 

 

 

I Know… Less Than Ever

A few years ago I returned to speak at the church that was my first pastorate. The church was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, and it had been more than a decade since I had stood in their pulpit. They welcomed me back with incredible grace and affection, and I was truly glad for the reunion.

When I first went there as pastor, I was a green, naïve, ignorant child, still in my early twenties, full of piss and vinegar, ready to extinguish hell with a water gun. Equipped with a fresh diploma, a certificate of ordination with the ink still wet, and a new red Bible, I worked hard to justify my position and demonstrate to all that I knew everything there was to know about leading a congregation. Heck, I wanted people to see that I knew everything about everything.

When it was whispered in the gossip parlors of the church Sunday school rooms and in the beauty salons of the greater community that in fact I did not know everything about everything, and that I was far too young for the responsibility now thrust upon me, I worked all the harder to prove my critics wrong and my youthful abilities underestimated.

This hard work paid off, because in the process of proving myself, the membership rolls did indeed grow. The coffers of the church swelled like never before, acres of land were purchased, buildings were built, mission trips were taken, baptisteries were filled, other congregations were planted, the church became a rising sensation, and the critics quieted their murmuring assaults. Yes, by the end of my tenure there, I had gained a great deal of success. But I also lost a few things along the way. I lost my youthful idealism; my religion; my marriage; my way, and almost my mind. Most of all, I lost touch with the very reason I had entered the vocation in the first place: The love of Christ.

See, I became more concerned with growing a bigger church than with the well-being of individual people who needed to know grace. I worked tirelessly to keep the “right” people happy and tithing, and neglected those on the “wrong” side of the tracks, those that Christ sought more than any other. I wanted a prosperous religious career by building the next religious edifice, by impressing the suits at the denomination’s headquarters, and by meticulously managing my public image. Only years later did I realize that Jesus was not very much involved in any of this.

It was a hard lesson to learn, but I take some comfort in the fact that I am not alone in learning it. Another hard-striving, pompous, know-it-all once wrote, “Christ has shown me that what I thought I knew is worthless…Nothing else matters but this: To know Christ and to know that I belong to him” (Philippians 3).

So that’s what I told my first congregation when they invited me back to speak. I told them that I had indeed been too young to be a pastor, that I had done them a disservice by spending too much energy on the trivial and on my own attempted accomplishments, and not enough energy pointing them to the grace and love found in Christ. And I told them that I now know a whole lot less than I once thought I did; I’m even more ignorant than I once was.

Not all of my old friends like this admission. They think I’ve lost my “fire,” or that I’ve gone “theologically soft.” Some think I’ve fallen completely away. This singular emphasis upon Christ and his grace, ironically, makes some Christians uncomfortable. They want “more.” But there is no more if our first and consuming passion is not to reflect the grace and love of Christ.

After all, “if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but I do not have love, it profits me nothing.” I don’t know much, but that much I know.

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.

Truly Satisfied

An old Quaker came to the end of his days as a farmer; no longer did he have the strength to work the soil. So, he placed a sign on his land that read, “This farm will be given to anyone who is truly satisfied.”

A wealthy merchant came riding along and saw the sign framed by the beautiful rolling hills, the rich dark soil, the barns and silos. He thought to himself, “If my friend the Quaker is so eager to part with his land, I might as well claim it. I have all I need – so I qualify.”

He guided his pony to the farmhouse, hopped out of the saddle, and walked to the front porch. The farmer slowly came to the door and offered his leathery hand. The merchant shook his hand and got down to business, explaining why he was there – to claim the land being offered – of course.

“Art thou truly satisfied?” the Quaker asked the merchant. The merchant responded, “I am, indeed. I have everything I need.” The old farmer answered, “My friend, if thou art satisfied with everything ye have, why doth thou need my land?” And with that he closed the door.

It is human nature to want; to search, covet, yearn for and lust even after we have everything we need – more than we need. There is this insatiable desire within us that we can’t seem to satisfy, a hunger we cannot fill. According to Richard Alpert, also known as Ram Dass, he says that desire is precisely the problem. It is the fly in the existential ointment, the one thing that always trips us up (Which in the Christian tradition sounds a lot like “original sin”).

Unmet desire is, as Alpert describes, like eating ice cream. One has to keep eating it, faster and faster, because it is constantly melting; it is always getting away, and never fulfills true hunger. I would only add to this apt description that even if one is able to “eat the whole thing” before it melts, then he or she will only feel sick, nauseous, and guilty when it is over.

So, how does one unhitch from the runaway desire, the sheer hunger of the heart that so often drags us to our undoing? The great G.K. Chesterton once said that there were only two ways to be satisfied. One “is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” But how does one desire less?

There’s no easy answer. Whole religions and extensive spiritual practices have been built around answering that question; and everything from self-flagellation and asceticism to quiet meditation and psychotropic drugs have been tried to free humanity from itself. Yet, the heinous rate of consumption, the constant grabbing and clutching for more, continues with happiness levels as flat as ever.But maybe the presence of desire isn’t the real problem. It’s not that “we want,” but that we want the wrong things. We are all going to desire. After all, desire is simply the search for happiness. What is the object of those desires; what is it that we are after that we think will make us happy? Those might be the better questions.

See, we have been duped. We think that acquisition will satisfy us. We have been fooled into thinking that a shinier car, a bigger house, a younger wife, a better neighborhood, or the newest piece of technology will make us happy. But it’s an evaporating illusion. When you are chasing after what will never ultimately please you, getting more of it won’t get it done.

I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added to you.” He was saying, “You’re going to desire, you’re going to want; just point those cravings in the right direction. Go for what counts!” Then you discover that living a satisfying life requires very little. You will discover that the hungry life can be replaced by the happy life.

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

Work it Out

Hanging on many a teacher’s wall or sitting on his or her desk is that little proverb that reads, “Life is a classroom.” Half of my teachers had a variation of this framed-art maxim, right along with their globes of the world and A-B-C wall borders. Uncapping my red pen, I’ll give this saying an “A” for effort, but a big fat “F” for accuracy.

Granted, life is an instructional course; that much is sure. There are teachers who teach, disciplinarians who correct, dunces who distract, subjects that inspire, friends who assist, and bullies who persecute. But life is not a static, clean, orderly classroom. It is a laboratory where we investigate, experiment, and work things out the best we can.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the first generation of Christians with these words, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This is his prescription for living. Life has to be entered as if we are apprentices in need of personal, practical, hands-on experience. This might make our hands quiver, but there is no other real way to learn than “working it out” as we go.

I remember sitting in an exhausting science class in high school. The instructor droned on as if she were auditioning for the whaa-whaa-whaa voice track of a Charlie Brown cartoon. Chemical reactions, the periodic table, kinetic energy, study questions, pop quizzes, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein: It never ended. We were chained to our desks, automatons taking notes and regurgitating information, learning little.

The next year, however, we had a new science teacher, one who had a “work it out” approach to teaching. On the first day of the school year he moved the class into the lab, a lab we had never been allowed to use previously, because of safety and financial concerns. It was glorious. We were issued safety goggles, rubber gloves, and vinyl lab aprons. We were introduced to the world of Bunsen burners, Petri dishes, test tubes, formaldehyde-drowned specimens, dissection, and the explosive power of certain substances and chemical reactions.

It was only after graduation that I learned that this teacher had spent large amounts of his own money for materials (and raised a good deal of the rest). He had also assumed personal liability for any problematic outcomes, all to open up the lab for the students. He was convinced – and rightfully so – that the best way for someone to learn is to “work it out” and enter the experience and experiment for oneself.

I don’t know whether it was Confucius, Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Aristotle, or some other wise person who said it, but my teacher practiced an alternative proverb to the one, “Life is a classroom.” His proverb was: “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.”

To be sure, we set off the fire alarm a few times in the process of doing. We had to hit the plunger for the emergency eyewash station at least once, when a chlorine experiment didn’t go quite right. But when you are learning – either in life or the laboratory – it’s not always safe and clean. Sometimes the lab of life fills with smoke and the sparks fly in one huge explosion. Sometimes the results we are working toward are much more surprising than we could have ever anticipated. Sometimes our learning is costly and comes with a load of liabilities. But what other option is there?

Given the choice, few of us want to sit still, safe, and stoic and be told about life. We want to actually live life – even if it causes our hands and hearts to shake. We don’t want to be given theories about what may or may not work for our lives. We want to put living into practice.

We don’t want the security of notepads and lectures. We want safety goggles and fire extinguishers in case something goes wrong. Truth told, some things will go wrong; but there is no better way to live and no better way to learn.

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.

Young and Dumb

My adolescent son told me the other day that “teenagers ought to rule the world.” After I stopped guffawing at him, I gave his manifesto some consideration, albeit though brief. Certainly, the mental faculty and emotional stability of your average teen is of some renown, as scientists have proven that the adolescent brain is incapable of logical decision making.

That’s a fact, not a criticism. Simply, not enough physiological development has taken place. Thus, it is impossible for a teenager to always behave or react rationally (To this I can attest – three teenage boys populate my home). But I don’t think today’s teens could do much worse with the world than today’s adults. We seem as immature as our children and grandchildren. Maybe science has figured out why.

Researchers say that no living person, in reality, is very old; because the cellular matter in our bodies is constantly regenerating. For example, the cells that make up the lining of our stomachs are only five days old; our skin cells are less than ten days old; and our livers regenerate completely in about a year (Depending upon one’s martini consumption, I suppose).

Even our “old bones” aren’t that old. In the course of a decade they will be made new, along with most of our muscles and tendons. In fact, only the cells of the heart muscle, cerebral cortex, lens of the eye, and eggs of a woman’s ovaries do not regenerate completely over one’s lifetime. The human body is constructed of some ten trillion cells, and most of those cells are young. Our bodies, no matter one’s birth date, average about 15 years of age…so…we are all teenagers.

Yet, the relative youth of our bodies is no excuse for maintaining emotional and psychological immaturity. We may not be born with the capacity to make healthy, rational decisions, but that is a virtue which can be acquired. Science, once again, has confirmed this fact as well.

In 2009, professors Dilip Jeste and Thomas Meeks published a major paper on their research into human wisdom. Among their discoveries were two obvious but enlightening conclusions. First, they discovered that true wisdom – that is the ability to skillfully apply knowledge and understanding to living life – is extremely rare in the human species. There just aren’t many sages or gurus among us. And second, those who are genuinely wise have the benefit of age and experience on their side – and more often than not, bad experiences.

See, you have to live a while, get kicked in the head a few times, fall on your face more than once, get caught in a self-manufactured disaster or two, and then wisdom – mercifully – begins to take root. Thus, the older you are, the smarter you should be, and the younger you are, the dumber you are! That too, it appears, is a scientific fact (It was Jack Weinberg in the 1960s who said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” – a marvelous anti-establishment statement. But Jack is now closer to 80 than 30, and I bet he would no longer stand by that statement).

Yes, youth gives us much of what we need: Audacity, vision, zeal, holy rebellion, and a good, healthy dose of revolutionary chaos from time to time. But like a fine wine, only time gives us wisdom.

So I guess it should be no surprise that our world is in its current condition. It is a world that values youth, childish rhetoric, toned bodies, and this month’s fresh face from L.A. or Nashville more than it values reason, understanding, and the invaluable wisdom that comes from age.

It is a culture that sacrifices on the altar of youthful stupidity the wizened experience of its elders; and it does so at its own tragic expense. For a society that will not listen to its grandparents or the voice of history, is a society that is doomed. There is a proverb that goes, “Old age and cunning will always beat youth and exuberance.” Well, for the sake of the world, I hope that’s true.

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