Food for Thought-Richard’s Daily Prayer-September 17th, 2014

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The morning prayers I write each day are posted on my church community’s Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ocracoke-United-Methodist-Church/165833216776269

Please feel free to like us and follow along.  Audio versions of my preached sermon can be found there as well.

I thought I would share today’s prayer here as well:

Gracious God

You call us to pray in the darkened closets and distant corners of our lives. Far from the eyes of the maddening crowd, we speak with you about those emotions, events, people, and ideas which dominate our days. Yet, before the words form in our minds and the ideas become words, you are meeting our most pressing needs. Needs we know, needs we have yet to become aware of, and comforting those who weigh on our souls. As we remember those in our life today in need of your presence, we give thanks to you for remembering us. We praise you for not forgetting that place, that seat, that spot in your kingdom where we are made welcome.

As we move from the hidden sanctity of prayer, be with us as we step onto the street corners of reality. May our prayers be more than words. May they become Spirit bathed actions made real by the love they embody and represent.

Amen

Food for Thought-A Dialogue with Bertolt Brecht about Ministry and the Church

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Bertolt Brecht’s Guide to Being Church

The great German dramatist has a few lessons to teach pastors, ministers, and churches as we seek an answer to the questions: “What makes us who we are?” “How do we ethically and authentically share our Christian identity to the world?”
I think Brecht, without whom Bobby Darin would have never sung Mack the Knife, has an idea or two.
1. Don’t do church just for those who want their hearts superficially warmed. Cutesy, cuddly, warm, and fuzzy can fill seats (or a theatre in Brecht’s case) but is it real?

2. Do what we do, as if the church is empty, and no one cares about the outcome. Be truthful and authentic about your message. If it alienates a few people rather than entertains anyone, then we’re being authentic to our message. What we say shouldn’t depend on the reaction we’ll receive.

3. Quote your message. By this Brecht would mean, the message is not ours. Pastors and leaders aren’t like traditional actors immersing themselves in a part. We are messengers, people who quote the reality of scripture. We put the scripture out there for everyone to see, grasp, and hear. We’re not here to convince people, in one hour, that we are something which we are actually not. We are bringing to the fore, God’s unfolding work in progress. Because people understand that their lives and the world they live in are works in progress.

4. Take the suspense out the equation. Tell people the Good News, the end of the story, and how it all worked out. Brecht said that if he had been directing Beckett’s waiting for Godot, he would have stood up at the back the room with a large sign which read, “He’s Not Coming!” We need to stand up at the front, back, and everywhere saying, “He came, he’s with us, and will return.” There’s no need to keep people in suspense. Life is too short. Let the cat out of the bag.

5. Everyone needs help from everyone. We’re all in this production together.

Food for Thought-Living Up To Your Potential

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You have more potential inside of you than admit, realize, or imagine.
Your ability to meet today’s challenges depends on:

a) How your fears, doubt, and uncertainties undermine your ability to put your potential into practice.
b) Recognizing your “where”: How does my “location” impact my ability to live up to my potential?
c) Am I able to do more and be more by emotionally weeding, spiritually watering the place where I’ve been placed? In other words, what do I need to do to encourage the world around me in order to better share my potential with others?
d) Commit to live up to your potential and make a contribution to the world in your current context. You can grow, encourage, learn and improve the lives of others by investing yourself in the world around you.

Food for Thought-It’s Not Fair!-Initial Thoughts on Matthew 20:1-16

The way I want to approach this parable is by  putting it into our context; our day and time.  In order to do this, imagine you didn’t know Jesus was telling this parable.  Forget, if you can, this is part of the Bible and the Son of God himself is relating this story.

Now imagine you’re driving down the road, listening to your favorite whine and gripe talk station, when this guy calls up; one of the workers who feels he’s been slighted and cheated because he worked all day and got the same money as the people who showed up at the end of the day.  It’s one of the workers, hired first, telling the story.  Not Jesus.  You’re hearing the exact same things Jesus said but you don’t know anything at all about Matthew 20:1-16.  You hear this cold, from the first worker’s perspective.  How would you feel?  Would you find yourself automatically agreeing with the aggrieved worker?  I think most people would.  Today, the first worker would probably add something to the story.  Those who came late and were paid the same were probably immigrants.  This would have infuriated the first worker even more.  Stereotypes would be fed, anger fueled, “see we’re going to hell in a hand basket” would be said, Congress and the President would be blamed, and the vicious cycle of “it’s not fair” would begin all over again.

Then you remember, this is not some call on a radio talk show.  This is Jesus talking.  You’d realize your anger is misplaced.  Why is Jesus taking the side of the late comers?  Why is he on the side of paying everyone the same?  Is Jesus some anti-American socialist?

Jesus is not an American.   He believes in treating people equally.  Define that how you will.

The kingdom of God is not about fairness.  It’s about equality before God.  If it were about fairness, none of us would have a shot at any kind of future.

Judge your reaction.  How out of step would your reactions be to Jesus’ priorities?

How big is the gap you need to fill?

Food for Thought-Camus on Ocrcaoke

Albert Camus

Camus on Ocracoke

Camus is walking beside me,
but he says nothing,
he only looks toward the sea,
Albert mumbles these words,
“Qui se soucie aujourd’hui?”
“Today?” I say.
“Je pense”,
We stumble,
for meaning on the verge of Fall,
winter must come,
for people to crawl,
beneath the myths,
they think they sing,
to find the words,
in which they believe,
Summer isn’t a season,
that ever leaves,
it is an invincible place,
inside of the collective “we”,
a place to dwell,
ce n’est pas l’enfer
when the shops are bare,
our future sits not,
upon such silly cares.

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-It’s Hard to Be a Bigot When You’re Realize Jesus Loves Us All Equally-A Sermon on Romans 14:1-12

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I have a confession to make.  I am pathologically incapable of ordering food in a restaurant without first knowing and discussing what everyone else is planning to eat.  My first question is typically, “So what are you having?”  It is, as if, I can’t make my decision until I know what other choices are being made.  There’s something in my head that tells me, “We must have culinary variety.”  So if I’m leaning toward steak and I know you’re also thinking about steak, well then, I’ll have to change my mind.  Maybe I’ll get the fish or chicken.  In the food utopia I’ve created in my mind, two people can’t order the exact same thing.  What if I want to try what you’ve ordered?  Even though we’re not in a Chinese restaurant (a whole other ball of wax) and won’t be served communal dishes, I want to leave open the possibility of sharing. Then there’s that one person who orders something, weird, askew, and maybe a bit gross.  This throws the whole ordering process off.  Because then, everyone at the table has to comment on what an informed culinary selection has just been made or how gross “fondue squid” actually sounds.

No longer are people simply ordering what they want.  It’s now about approval, making a decision from the choices of others, and then judging what sounds strange of different to you.   If you’ve ever gone out to eat and had this experience, you’ve had a snapshot of what life looked like in first century Christianity.  People were big into food and they attached huge religious significance to what and how they ate.  Eating was a life or death issue and I don’t mean just for the cow, sheep, or pig on your plate.  And like any issue in the church, whether then or now, it was never all about eating.  There were much more important theological and religious concerns just below the surface.

Paul is writing a letter to the Romans.  The Romans are “the” Christian community to be a part of.  They represent the intellectual vanguard of the growing Christian movement.  In the capital of the most powerful empire the world had ever known, they represent the hope of the church in more ways than one.  If we were to enter the door of First Church, Rome, we would find Latin speaking Roman converts.  There are Jews who have heard Jesus’ message and believed.  You will find immigrants from all corners of the empire who have made it to Rome and now identify themselves as Christian.  They are multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and some bring with them other Christian experiences.  Some have been to Jerusalem, Alexandria, or Damascus.  Others knew nothing of the Christ until they entered the fellowship.  And yet, they are all here, under this single roof, and claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Their connection to the wider world and other Christian communities has been largely fostered by Paul.  Though Paul has never visited this church, he knows their mindset, he understands them, and is trying to support them as they become the disciples they have been called to be.  He anticipates making a journey to Rome and this letter is a word of encouragement written for their whole community.  When he gets there, he wants to meet them at their best.

Our letter and this snapshot from the 14th chapter, is an insight into the life of this early church and how Paul was attempting to guide them beyond a superficial faith into something more substantial.

Paul is giving the Romans, the church that really believed they had something going on by virtue of their geography, an extended lesson in how be welcoming, friendly, and hospitable.  He’s teaching them how to be better people, better Christians, and how to have a better church.

Paul’s first rule: Christians welcome everybody; especially those who are weak in their faith.  This is gesture of love and done in love.  We don’t welcome people to church, especially those Paul refers to as “weak in faith” (i.e. people who are in different places in how they understand what it means to be faithful) because we want to argue with them.  Paul wants the early Christians in Rome to see that differences of belief are something to be embraced and welcomed.   Clearly, he doesn’t want people be threatened by people who say or do things differently.

Here’s how he puts it (and he’s using a dietary example to make his point-which tells us that there were probably people in the new church who wanted to keep Kosher or follow Jewish dietary restrictions-a very important discussion-and those who did not.  There were people who believed that in order to follow Jesus one still had to follow certain Jewish practices.  Others did not share this belief.):  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.”   So some were kosher and some were vegetarian.  He goes on in verse 3, “Those who eat must despise those who abstain and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat, for God has welcomed them.”  In other words, kosher people can be mean and vegetarians can’t be snobby-this is God’s party.  God gets to decide who is let in, not us.  And apparently, God’s got much bigger things to worry about than what people are eating.

Remember, “food” or “who ate what” was just the issue they used to mask the true nature of what they were upset about.  They might look like racists or bigots if they said, “we don’t like people because those jokers from Asia Minor because they speak a different language and they have darker skin.”  Instead, they said, “We’ll just get them on the food thing.”   So when the issue came up they said, “It’s not because you’re new and different, you just don’t eat right.”  Though everyone knew what they really meant.

So, if we were going to put this into today’s language, what would it look like?  Would we still phrase this as a discussion about food?  Is that the example Paul might use today?

He might say something like this.  “Some were straight, some were gay, some were republicans, and some were democrats, some were white, and some were black but in church and in life, those who are straight must not pass judgment on those who are gay, and those who are gay must not pass judgment on those who are straight, democrats must not pass judgment on republicans, republicans upon democrats, white upon black, and black upon white.”

As important and meaningful as those issues are to us today, people were living and dying by the same concerns Paul highlighted in his letter.

The same concerns that plagued the Roman church are also in our churches today, it’s just that the terminology has changed.   The issues of judgment, grace, and getting along with one another have not changed, they remain the same.

Paul goes on to say, and here’s where it gets really good, that in our own ways, our differences bring honor to God.  God honors our differences and our differences honor God.  That’s the second big point he’s making. 

He says some people have a more positive outlook on life, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.”  In other words, we all have different perspectives.  That’s who God made us.

If you honor the Sabbath or a particular day over another, you’re doing that in honor of the Lord, Paul says.  “Also, he adds, “those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain (the vegetarians), abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”

Do you see what he’s saying?  If you’re acknowledging God as the root, saying thanks, whatever you do and how you do it honors God.  Are you genuine in how you live and give thanks to God?  Paul indicates that if your heart is in the right place, you’re honoring God?  That’s his big third point, “Who are we to judge other people?”  He asks this quite bluntly:  “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sisters?”

Because, “we will all stand”, he says in verse 10.  Yes, it’s a verse about judgment but God’s judgment is based on our equality with each other.  People read that verse and go straight to that word judgment. Judgment is not our business, it is God’s business. God sees and embraces our differences while also saying, “We’re all equal.”

Our lives are about offering God praise.  Paul closes by telling us, “It’s hard to praise God on bended knee and with your words (your tongue) when you’re distracted by your definition of the sins of others and you’re using your tongue (your words) to judge people.

How about us?  Are we able to focus on worship, service, praise, and gratitude to the level Paul was encouraging the first church in Rome?   Are we able to say when something is not about the eating or whatever people want to call the issue of the day?  That being a person of faith is about not judging, forgiving, and living in community.  You can fight about anything.  The question is, are you willing to not judge the people you are fighting and remember that God died for all of us equally, no matter what issues we have deemed to be life and death or sink or swim?

So how do you praise God?  How does one worship God if your attentions are focused elsewhere?  It’s hard to worship and praise God if you’re too busy doing God’s job for God.  You can’t praise God and judge the people around you.  The two actions are mutually exclusive.  One cancels the other out.  This is what I want you to remember and hold on to today.

Food for Thought-Bible vs. the Quran

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On a day (and in a time) where veiled and not so hidden religious intolerance is passed around as good theology and solid journalism, I thought I’d do a brief demonstration.

Can you tell the difference between the Bible and the Quran?   Are you able to tell, just by reading, if you are presented with similar themed examples from both texts.

There are lots of places where the Judeo-Christian scriptures sound more like the Quran than we are comfortable admitting.  Maybe we need to think about the inherent violence (and similarities) in our own religious traditions as we condemn others who use sacred texts to justify murder.

Example 1.

They made for him what he willed of elevated chambers, statues, bowls like reservoirs, and stationary kettles. [We said], “Work, O family of David, in gratitude.” And few of My servants are grateful.

or

I will open my mouth in a parable; I will declare the mysteries of ancient times. That which we have heard and known, and what our forebears have told us, we will not hide from our children.

Example 2.

And We certainly gave David from Us bounty. [We said], “O mountains, repeat [Our] praises with him, and the birds [as well].” And We made pliable for him iron,

or

With my lips I will recite all the judgments of your mouth. I have taken greater delight in the way of your decrees than in all manner of riches.

Example 3

You must destroy all the people given over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods.

or

Do not wait until you find them. Rather, seek and besiege them in their areas and forts, gather intelligence about the various roads and fairways so what is made wide looks ever smaller to them.

Food for Thought-Living a Schizophrenic Christian Life-Ignoring Jesus and Being Cool with Our Arrogance

 

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Inconsistencies: How What We Say We Believe and How We Live Don’t Match Up

1. Forgiveness. We are told to forgive an exponential number of times. To follow Jesus’ language to its logical conclusion, we are encouraged to forgive so often and so regularly, that we lose count of how often we have forgiven someone or something. Our usual answer is this: that’s all well and good for Jesus, but he doesn’t live in our world. There are so many things we claim we can’t forgive.  In fact, we use the term so loosely, it’s not uncommon to hear, “I can’t forgive politician “x” for what he or she has done to the country.” “Or I can’t forgive McDonald’s for habitually messing up my food order so I’m never going back.” We have so lowered the bar on what we believe requires forgiveness and turned our understanding of forgiveness into an action unrecognizable from the limitless gift Jesus describes.

We also mistakenly believe that forgiveness requires forgetting. By this I mean that many people mistakenly think one must forget the event, feelings, or action being forgiven. Jesus forgave his executioners, his disciples who betrayed him, and sinners alike. However, we do not forget the crucifixion itself. We must recall the event which we are forgiving, for the forgiveness to hold any meaning or value. If we discount this central aspect of Jesus’ teaching and life, we are discounting Jesus.

While it is more obvious in a discussion of forgiveness, this is only one example of picking and choosing the most palatable aspects of Jesus’ life for us to agree with and turning Christianity into percentage game. We’ve convinced ourselves there’s no reason to attempt to live up to Jesus’ hard sayings. We choose to follow a percentage of his teachings and still claim 100% of his identity. This is not a new observation. However, I am struck with how comfortable the church is becoming, year after year, living this schizophrenic existence. How can we ever be comfortable with such hypocrisy? How can we simply stop trying to be a holistic follower of Jesus when we deem Jesus’ actions out of step with our time and circumstances?  Because Jesus runs counter to the dominant culture we call home.  Plainly, it’s  hard way to live.  Why not embrace the totality of Jesus’ message and fail nobly (relying on Grace instead of the opinions of others) rather than ignore what our own arrogance deems as inappropriate?

2. Violence. It is illegal to use corporal punishment in most public schools in the United States. However, in many private schools, this action is still sanctioned. Why would we be ok not beating children in one setting but allow it another? Again, we’re thriving on a double standard. Our message: Jesus just doesn’t get it. It’s ok to say you oppose violence on one hand but allow it to occur, on the other hand, because the law allows such insanity. The question with the schools raises a larger point. There is so much violence around us. Jesus is clear about his position on violence. Jesus would be opposed to it in all forms. But while we decry abuses and torture around the world, we think nothing of allowing it to occur right under our noses. Why wouldn’t we want to apply the same ideas everywhere? Is it because Jesus doesn’t get the way we do business or how we interpret his Hebrew Bible and we condemn violence in other places because we feel morally (and religiously) superior to those in Africa or the Middle East? Don’t you think people notice this disconnect in how we live, what we say, and what we do? Maybe, maybe not. Could this be a reason evangelism is so difficult? Not that people are reluctant to worship with others who freely admit to being sinners and hypocrites. We’re all in need of redemption. Maybe people don’t want to come back to church (or come to church) because they see us as too comfortable with our inconsistencies, unwilling to discuss them and unwilling to do anything about them. Maybe it’s got nothing to do with technology, music, or worship style. It’s got nothing to do with you don’t have or programs you don’t offer. We read from a book and the words of a man who says, “live this way” and then we stop and say, “Isn’t he a nice young man from Galilee, I’ll have to think about what he just said.”  As a whole, have we just stopped trying? 

He doesn’t want us to think about it. He wants us to do it.

Why is it so hard to embrace the totality of Jesus’ message for the most ordinary parts of our lives?

I wish I knew.

Food for Thought-A Shakespearean Sonnet on the Cruel Month of September

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A Shakespearean Sonnet on the Cruel Month of September

The late summer rains carry leaden air,
Vapors stalk me and they for whom I care,
Misty humors from the west make dark clouds,
Perchance, I only dream while nature sounds,
Anon, cruel fate awakes my sleeping heart,
Unable, I am to know where to start,
Opaque mysteries roam freely by my bed,
While beads of desperation drench my head,
Cruel month of September, won’t you leave?
Your nights bring me such pain on each new eve,
Alas, poor time close the September door!
With your humid vapors gone ever more,
Leave now, my soul, in shreds of autumn peace,
Before I embrace a cold winter’s sleep.

–Richard Bryant