Food for Thought-Prayer Hacks

Prayer Hacks:

Jump-starting Your Prayer Life:

1. Try five minutes of prayer. Focus your thoughts on:

a. What you’re grateful for
b. Why you’re grateful for these thing

Write those two questions down on a note card. When you find your focus drifting on your mind starting to wander, take a glance at the card and read the questions again. Do this over and over if you need to. Remember five minutes is all this takes.

2. For a slightly longer exercise, try 10 minutes of silent prayer. Put yourself in a physical spot, a place where you can stop and listen to the world around you. As you’re listening to the wind rustle leaves, birds, even cars driving down the street, what is God saying to you within and among these sounds? What thoughts come to mind while you are listening?

Food for Thought-Layaway is Back

Layaway is back,
Wal-Mart waits,
While the money gestates,
As people buy in,
To more consumerist sin,
Bigger and better,
Wider screens are what matter,
To watch those guilty of domestic abuse,
Make obscene money while on the loose,
We pretend we like to care,
While wearing jerseys in our lounge chairs.
But really we don’t give a flip,
As long as our lives aren’t challenged a bit.

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-This Sunday Rain (A Poem)

This Sunday Rain

Preface:  I understand the need for rain; biologically, environmentally, and ecologically speaking.  However, at the moment, I’m sick of rain.  RB

This Sunday rain,
is more like a flood,
I expect to see pairs of creatures,
walking through the mud,
headed for some Ark like feature,
but will the angry ones draw blood,
when they find the Methodist preacher,
with his tied theological tongue,
urging his flock to get out of life’s bleachers,
and back into the non-existent sun.

-Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-My American Life

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Since I live in kind of a remote area, radio reception can be spotty, even on the best of days.  When I can’t pick up “This American Life” on the radio, I put on my biggest, chunkiest pair of glasses and tell myself my own offbeat, witty stories while listening to Milt Buckner’s “The Beast” and other Ultra Lounge Classics.

Food for Thought-Jesus Sounds Like a 1st Century Palestinian Socialist-A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16

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If Jesus is known for doing one thing in his teaching and parables it this: turning your expectations on their head and shattering your illusions about how you think God works and responds to the world. In parable after parable, encounter after encounter, this is what Jesus does. One of the most dramatic examples can be found in the parable we read this morning.

I think one of the best ways to understand what Jesus is saying is to put it into our context today. How can we try and hear this story as if we’ve never heard it before and really don’t know much about this Jesus guy who has shared it? If we want to hear his story with fresh ears and see with new eyes, we need to tell this story in such way that it might take us by surprise in the same way it did with Jesus’ first hearers. It’s hard to do this with some of Jesus’ parable; the clear points of connection just aren’t there. Not so with this one. What Jesus is talking about today, the people he’s describing, are all part of our world. The people, practices, and reactions are really unchanged from when Jesus first told this story.

So what’s one way we might encounter this story anew; a story of migrant day laborers, wage disputes, economic inequality, and perceived injustice?

Forget, if you can, this is part of the Bible and the Son of God himself is relating this story.
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.

How would you feel if that were you? Would you agree with the supposedly slighted workers? Is this, “what’s wrong with America/the world today”; people wanting to receive benefits or pay when they don’t do what we perceive to be the work first?

Then you remember; this is not some call on a radio talk show. This is Jesus talking. If I’m getting frustrated at the outcome of this story, how this guy was treated, and how this boss paid everyone the same amount of money, I’m getting frustrated and angry toward the Son of God, Jesus Christ himself.

Let me tell you, if you’re driving and have such a realization, and pull over.

Day laborers have been part of the economic system for centuries. People who wait on street corners and dusty roads for a chance to work for enough to eek by for another day, have been some of the most exploited human beings in the history of western civilization. The lack any worker protections, they can’t form unions, they can be paid next to nothing, and they work in horrible conditions. There are always more day laborers than available work. So even on a good day, many are left behind. When people suggest (as you see in Jesus’ parable) in our own day that we change some of those conditions in which day laborers work (protection, equal pay); the people at the top and the people who get paid, get very angry. Some will say, “Isn’t a job enough?” Some money is better than no money, right?

Here are the facts: Jesus’ understanding of justice and fairness is nothing like ours. If they were, none of us would be here today. Jesus’ ideas about how to pay and treat people who are barely hanging on to the end of the rotten socio-economic ladder of mass-agricultural capitalism are what many in our day would call un-American. How would Jesus be treated by Bill O’Reilly if he told this parable on “The Factor”? He would be called a socialist. He would be called weak on immigration for encouraging the use of illegal alien migrant day laborers. He would be vilified. People might begin to talk about the equivalent of 21st century crucifixion. Tweets and messages would flood in. “Good Going Bill, you showed that long haired Middle Eastern socialist a thing or two about how we do it in America!”

What Jesus says and teaches, particularly here, stands in stark contrast to what many in our country have been taught to believe. The terms we were taught, “God-fearing, hard-working American” and the idea of a “Protestant work ethic”, don’t look to Godly when measured against Jesus’ management practices in this passage.

Jesus resists living by the status quo, interpreting scripture by the status quo, and so should we. He is turning the world (of those who are listening) upside down as well as ours. In this parable, we have more in common with his hearers and the first workers than we do Jesus. If something about what Jesus has just said doesn’t feel right to you, then you know he’s talking to you. You are now upside down.

One of the big problems is when we read this parable is we see ourselves as the first hour workers. That’s who we associate ourselves with and that’s what stokes our anger. When we hear it in our context (if you pull Jesus out and listen to the story), we agree with that guy. The truth is, we are not first hour workers. Each one of us, you and me, are all 11th hour workers. We have all arrived at the end of the day. It is not until the last possible minute we show up. We have all been the undeserved recipients of God’s undeserved generosity and grace. It’s been that way all our lives. But somehow, we started getting frustrated when God became generous and loving to other people. It made us mad to see God do for others what he’d done for us. Where did we get the idea that we could tell God how to be God? How did we ever get fooled into thinking we were first and God owed us more than the many blessings we’d already received?

We stopped listening to Jesus, that how. We forgot who we were listening to and who was telling us the story. We stopped letting Jesus’ stories shape our lives and values and allowed the media, popular culture, technology, and the news mold our characters instead. In the words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that working out for you?”

So how do we begin to come to terms that everyone is equal in the eyes of God? That’s what this parable is really about. It’s not about the money. It’s that the landowner gave the same money. People were treated equally and fairly by God’s standard and not by our “human” or “worldly” standards. Where do we conveniently destroy our indignation at Jesus’ words and the supposed unfairness of the landowner’s actions? That like so much else; can be left at the foot of the cross.
There was a book written many years ago by a man named, J.B. Phillips. It was entitled, “Your God is Too Small.” Maybe this parable is asking us to write a new book, “Our God is Too Nice.” God is too nice, nicer than we can ever imagine. God is nicer to us than we deserve. We have no right to be angry when he’s nice to other people; people who are different from us, who show up after we do, and those who generally frustrate the hell out of us. Because we’re all different, we’re all late comers to the party, and we’re all just waiting for someone to call us and offer us a chance to serve.

-Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Hunger Games in the Wilderness-a Sermon on Exodus 16:2-15

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I really do feel for Moses. I talked a couple of weeks ago at how difficult it must have been for him to initially relate the story of the burning bush to his family and fellow shepherds. Can you imagine explaining to a group of disbelieving Midianite relatives or shepherds? Shepherds you don’t really fit in with in the first place. They are professional shepherds since they could walk, you are an over educated culturally confused Egyptian claiming to be Jewish who’d never seen a sheep until you arrived in Midian fleeing murder charges. One day you tell them God spoke to you through a burning bush (which didn’t burn) and now you’re the one designated to lead the mission to free the Israelites from Pharaoh? People haven’t changed that much over the past three or four thousand years. If it sounds strange to us, it’s probably going to sound crazy to them as well.

Now all of that has been vindicated. He was the guy God called. Despite his meekness of speech and initial reluctance, the Exodus happened. God made massive demonstrations of his power to convince Pharaoh to let his people go. The Nile turned to blood, there plagues of frogs and locusts, and eventually the angel of death passed over and killed every first born Egyptian. To follow this up, God caused an immense natural body of water to divide itself, making it possible for the Israelites to flee an approaching Egyptian army. The army was subsequently destroyed when the divided water came back together, crushing and drowning the Egyptian army. You have to admit it, this is pretty amazing stuff. If you’re one of the Israelites on this initial stage of the journey to the Promised Land, you’ve seen God do things than no one else had ever seen or would ever see again. There should be no doubt in your mind about God’s seriousness of purpose or God’s ability to deliver and deliver big on God’s promises. Wouldn’t you agree?

Yes. I would. And this is why I feel for Moses, as a leader and simply as a human being. You would think that by this time his resume and God’s actions would speak for themselves. But that’s not the case. What the Israelites have seen and witnessed isn’t enough. Yesterday, God was killing Egyptian children and the Pharaoh was drinking blood from the polluted Nile. It seems, that no matter how dramatic and meaningful yesterday was they’ve forgotten it. Call it what you will, they’ve stopped connecting the dots, they are no longer thinking straight, they’ve simply ignored the realities of the past and can’t see anything beyond right now. That stinks, especially for Moses.

They might have been on the road for 60-90 days. At some point, relatively soon after they left Egypt, scripture tells us, “the whole congregation”, which means basically everybody started to complain against Moses and Aaron. Here’s the kicker. The complaints are not simple concerns. One might expect, “we’re hot, we’re tired, there’s never enough water.” Those are the kind of complaints one might and would even rightly expect. We’re dealing with human beings in hot, dry, and arid land. People will complain.

But that’s not what they said. Listen again to their words. “If we had only died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

If you God, is what they are saying, had only killed us in Egypt, we would be better off, because there was bread in Egypt. Now Moses, you are trying to kills us with some kind of starvation death march. This is why I feel for Moses. He can’t win. Can you just imagine his level of frustration? He risked his life by going up in front of Pharaoh, he’s helped facilitate these massive displays of God’s power, with his brother he has helped organize every aspect of their journey and now they accuse him of trying to kill them with starvation? They have the nerve to publicly say it was better in Egypt. So not only have they forgotten what God has done for them they’ve completely idealized and romanticized what being a slave was about.

It would be like someone managing to escape from Auschwitz, Dachau, or Bergen-Belsen any concentration camp you can name and when they were far enough way but have to struggle between German and allied lines saying something like this to the person risked their life to free them, “Those Germans and SS guards sure were nice guys. Why have you brought me out here to the cold forests of Poland only to die of hunger and starvation? Why didn’t you kill me at the camp? At least they gave us rotten bread to eat on the way to the gas chamber. The gas chamber would be better than this.”

Do you see how ridiculous they are being? How insanely stupid they sound? How they have lost all sense of proportion and context?

This complaint to Moses reveals two important facts. First, they have trust issues with Moses. Secondly, they don’t trust God. Ultimately, it is really just about God. Because if they don’t trust Moses, that’s just the visible sign that they don’t trust God. And as Billy Joel said, it’s a matter of trust.

They think they are out there to play the Hunger Games. That’s not the case. Through Moses, God explains how he is going to provide for them on a daily basis. It involves giving them bread on a daily basis. I seem to remember us saying something earlier about, “give us this day or daily bread.” Well lo and behold this is where Jesus took it from.

God is going to provide bread from heaven each and every day they are on the road. There will only be enough for that given day. On the day before the Sabbath, so they can rest on the Sabbath, God will provide and extra portion, so they are getting two days worth on that day. There will be enough for everyone. No one will get more than they need but everyone will get exactly what they need. This is crucial to God’s plan: what they are getting will only last for one day. Anything leftover will rot away that night. So no one is allowed to stockpile or hoard food. They will get more on the following day.

Why is God doing it this way? Why is God using this daily bread option? Because they are going to have to trust him that something will be there tomorrow. The only way this is going to work is if they trust God. We only have enough food for today. This bread will only feed us today. We have no leftovers, supplies, or any for tomorrow. The only way we are going to survive is to trust that God will do tomorrow (provide for us) the same way he did today. We have to trust God (and his people on the ground, Aaron and Moses).

How many times in our own life have we reenacted this Israelite drama? You may not have seen a plague of frogs or Silver Lake split so you can walk across it but you have seen God at work in your life. God has done amazing things; sometimes spectacular and at other times exquisitely simple. Regardless of how grand or how small, God has moved in your life. How easy is it for us to forget how far God has brought us and what God has done in our lives? It is as easy as it was for the Israelites.

How easy is it for us to offer effusive praise and love to God on one day then doubt God’s love or presence in our lives the next? It is as easy as the last breath you took. So what do we do? How do we avoid playing the mental Hunger Games like a group of wandering Israelite pilgrims?

The first thing we do is look around. We remind ourselves of what God has done in our lives. Are you alive this morning? I hope so. There are no zombies in God’s house. Do you have food on your table? I doubt any of us are going hungry. Do you have family and friends who love you? Yes, because many of them are sitting right here beside you. I could go on. But I am here to tell you this morning that those things are evidence of God’s action, presence, and blessing in your life. You life is your Red Sea, you food is your manna from heaven. You family and your life is evidence that God has spared you from the Pharaoh’s of this world.

Now if all of that mercy, goodness, and grace surrounds you, let me ask you this: Did God bring you that far to let you down tomorrow? Did God walk with you up to this point to forget about you? We didn’t come this far to forget. We did make this journey to stop here. We didn’t overcome all of those in our lives to give up now. Fear and doubt may have knocked at your door. Will trust answer?

In the words of the old African American spiritual, “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired”:
I don’t feel noways tired
I’ve come to o far from where I started from
Nobody told me the road would be easy
I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.

We know the road’s not easy. Yet, he didn’t bring you this far to leave you.

The second thing both we and the Israelites need to do is understand the difference between our “shoulds” and our “musts”. We all know what we should do. But can we do what we must do? We know we should trust God. We see that God has a track record. We are living proof of God’s unbroken winning streak in keeping us alive. And we must not forget it. That is why we must remind ourselves by looking around at our world and our lives. That is why we must remind ourselves by coming to church and re-telling the stories of God’s goodness and saving works. This is why we sing the old hymns that talk about what God has done because we must remind ourselves for a coming tomorrow when we are prone to forget.

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.