Richard’s 13 Commandments of Happiness

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1. Be you.

2. You can deal with this; whatever this is.

3. Do it, whatever it is.

4. Live the way you want to feel.

5. Look around and lighten up. Really.

6. Embrace your mistakes.

7. Be kind and polite.

8. Don’t bottom line life.

9. Love

10. You don’t have to fix everything.

11. Unfixed doesn’t mean unhappy.

12. Most messes, even the emotional ones, can be fixed with soap and water. Keep your spiritual soap and water handy.

13. Write it down if you must, talk it out if you can. Happiness isn’t silent.

You Are About To Die

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I saw one of those “click bait” posts the other day “10 Ways to Know You’re About to Die”. I didn’t take the bait. It did pique my curiosity. What are the surefire signs you’re going to croak? Here’s my list. If you’re experiencing these things, one day, you might be about to die:

1. You are breathing.

2. You can see things.

3. You are talking.

4. You can smell stuff.

5. When the lights are off, you sense darkness.

6. You have eaten a meal recently.

7. You experience the need to sleep for eight or so hours a day.

8. People and their idiosyncrasies, sometimes annoy you.

9. You are thirsty.

10. You sneeze.

If you’ve experienced any of these ten conditions/symptoms you might, one day, be about to die. Call someone fast, tell them you’re still alive.

Jesus Is In The Riots

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It’s been another tough week for race relations in the United States.  Shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte have ripped the loose scab off the fresh wounds from earlier in the summer.  I have no grand insights on race relations.  It’s the pessimism and hopelessness I’m seeing in my congregation and community which bother me.  As such, I’m thinking about hope, Jesus, and Jeremiah.

I have an idea how he might have handled this week.  I do believe, had he owned a smart phone or computer, his first instinct wouldn’t have been to take to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.  Jesus didn’t do name and shame.  Nowhere in the gospel do you find the parable of the passive aggressive savior, where Our Lord cajoles people into joining the Jesus movement.   Jesus never ends a parable with the words, “Just saying.”  If Jesus couldn’t meet with people directly, particularly those opposed to his work, he’d wait for the opportunity to arise or create the moment.  Jesus says I want to break bread with you not because I disagree with you or I’m opposed to how you think or you represent the most reprehensible elements of society.  He says, “I want to come to you because I love you, God loves you, and love is bigger than all of that.”  Each parable, story, and encounter returns the hearer to this message:  God’s love is at work when you don’t see it, feel it, expect it, or deserve it.  You are not disconnected from what God is already doing, simply because we can’t see it, because it’s not on TV, or the we’ve been conditioned to believe the world is about to end.  Don’t bet against hope.

Jeremiah was once told to do something hopeless; buy a field in his hometown when the country was about to collapse.  God tells Jeremiah and Jesus says to us that hope depends on our investment, with God, in an unseen tomorrow.  The received wisdom of the moment is as seductive as it is wrong.  There are no more words to say about the shock and horror of America’s racial nightmare.  We must live with riots as we must live with the occasional questionable killing of a civilian by police.  This is the new normal.  A police state or anarchy, what will we be?  No, no, no.  If we have run out of words then we are only staring blankly into today’s dystopian nightmare.  Today is not tomorrow and God owns the future.  Good Friday is not Easter Sunday morning.

God is out there, going ahead of you, already at work.  When you pray, God is waiting to meet you; you’re not calling upon God to come to you.  God is already there, out there, ahead of you, in the mess.  We find this in Jeremiah and we see in on the news.  You see rioting on television, suffering refugees, or flooding in Louisiana and you ask; where is God?  God is right there in the midst of the chaos, already there, at work, ahead of us, trying to do a new thing.  What do you think, God waits until the crowds go home and the tear gas fades away?  God doesn’t show up when it’s safe.  If God waited to move until all the cosmic ducks were in a row, the money was in the bank, and safety was paramount, we would be nowhere.  Our churches would be empty and our story unwritten.   God moves in the darkness, among the chaos.  That is what Genesis says.  God came to Jeremiah with that same question and God is also asking us:  Do you believe that creation is an ongoing process and what appears hopeless or foolish today will be alive tomorrow?  I think it’s a good question; one I’ll keep asking.

 

What Prayer Is Not

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Prayer is Not…

1. Self-help speak.

2. A way to fix things.  God’s Grace is the “fixer”. Prayer may reassure us of Grace but it isn’t Grace.  Prayer doesn’t fix things, Grace does.

3. An invitation we extend for God to meet us at our lowest emotional convenience.

4. Therapy with an unseen counselor.

5. Always about words.  Silence works wonders in Prayer.

6. Confined to worship.

7. Like a movie, with a start, stop, and pause button.  It really never stops because we simply join in to what God’s already doing.

8. A half full or half empty thing, it is a glass which can always be refilled.

9. What you probably think it is.

10. Paper, Words, or Thoughts alone. Presence is also Prayer.

–Richard Bryant

It’s Been A Smelly Week On Silver Lake

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It’s been a cooler week on Silver Lake with tourists returning and autumn peeking around the corner. Despite this being the last full week of summer, down at the Village Gas Hut, home of the Over Laid Back Eggs, new air conditioning units were just put in.  I don’t know quite what this means.  Like some sort of HVAC ground hog, Sean knows six more weeks of hot weather is coming down the pike.  Six more weeks of air conditioning, while tough on the electric bills, means we’re going to be alive.  A dear sister in Christ posted a note on a church Facebook page early Friday morning.  Out of the goodness of her heart, she wanted both to warn and tell us of an impending 6.6 level earthquake of the coast of South Carolina on September 25th.  North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia are scheduled for divine demolition.  God, so this woman thinks, is angry about something in these three states.   I too wish our college football programs were stronger but heavenly temper tantrums to wipe out the human race?  Sean is too shrewd a businessman to invest in new air conditioning if we’re about to fall into the sea.   I’m with Sean.

The cats came and went through Chairman Meow’s House of Feline Fixing and Finery.  Whether the cats share an email list, Facebook account, or someone forced them to come; I haven’t heard.  A couple of times a year, Chairman Meow’s House of Feline Finery stops selling collars, costumes, and that fancy litter imported from Buxton.  For forty-eight hours Meow’s becomes an impromptu veterinary surgery.  Fixing Felines is like learning how to make Over Laid Back Eggs; it is an art form.  You need to know what you’re doing.  That’s why people with college degrees, who wear shoes on a regular basis, and carry fancy titles after their names are recruited for this most delicate of tasks.  Cats, particularly those with legs, hair, eyes, ears, and souls do not like to be fixed.  If interviewed, most cats will tell you, “We are not broken”.   Brokenness, like beauty, is in the eye of the one doing the holding.

Time seems to pick up as the week go on.  Monday moves like Molasses Creek.  Tuesdays are, well, Tuesdays.  Who does anything much on Tuesdays?  I spent the better part of the evening talking about lighting at church.  Despite what you may believe, churches aren’t supposed to be dark.  We like them to be well lit with energy efficient bulbs.  Finding the right light, under which to sing or preach by may make all the difference in a worship service.  Why do you think the Dark Ages were so dark?  Intellectual darkness comes from physical darkness.

On Friday, I came to work as I always do.  I walked through the door marked “office” and then entered a second door also marked “office”.  The redundancy is for my benefit.  I’ve been known to get lost in churches.  The journey from the door one to door two takes me from the world of golf carts, traffic, and noise into the realm of religious reflection.  It didn’t quite work that way this morning.  The hallway, the entire back of the church, smelled like poop, waste, excrement, dung, feces, fertilizer, droppings, discharge, evacuation, stool, and generalized external defilement.  Old churches smell but not like this.  Something was way off.

The bathroom, located next to my office, had been defiled.  It, and I use the term loosely, was everywhere (and I do mean everywhere).  The first thing I did was make a phone call:

“Hey, it’s me”.  My wife is on the other end.  She’s my one phone call when I encounter poop covered rooms.

“The bathroom is covered with poop.”  This means I don’t want to clean it up.  My statement is really a question.  Will you come do it for me?

“What do you want me to do about it?”  This means the girls are coming home for lunch and I’m on my own.

“I’ll figure it out myself.”  This means my next steps are to find gloves, cleaning supplies, and to talk to Jesus.  I will need to come terms with this reality:  I will vomit sometime in the next few minutes.

What I told Jesus:

Dear Lord,

You have got to be kidding me.

This is crazy.  I didn’t sign up for this.

Who makes this kind of mess?  So, what are you going to teach me about Grace?

I hope whoever did this sees a gastroenterologist because they need it.

Amen, I’m going to be sick.  Be right back.

Richard

 

Reflections on The Wesleyan Covenant Association

 

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The idea of a “Wesleyan Covenant” makes me nervous.  When have self-selecting groups formed from ideas of religious exclusivity turned out well?  Your plan, such as there is one, is to give people like me only one option.  Purges are easier if the dissenters are gone.  There will be no place for me in your Wesleyan Covenant Association.  I am not ordained in covenant with John Wesley or anyone in his family.  My covenant is with God.  The United Methodist Church is how I express the covenant.  If you want to create a new club, go right ahead.  No one is stopping you.

Both dysfunctional churches and scary cults form from the same concept. Remember:  Methodism doesn’t have the market on cornered on the exclusive means of salvation and personal holiness.  We have good ideas but those aren’t unique to us nor do they make us superior to others.  Exclusivity in the guise of revival and renewal is self-aggrandizing narcissism.  It’s also dangerous.  You may find ways to justify your actions in Wesleyan theology.  However, do you honestly think Jesus would be on board?  Or has John Wesley become the Blessed Virgin Mary, a perfect moderator for your vision of Jesus’ teaching?

I served Methodism’s mother churches in Britain and Ireland for four years.  I know what Methodism looks like in situ, across the tiny villages of northern England and Ireland.  It is dying, like most of religious traditions in Western Europe.  Yet, tiny class meetings, a phrase American Methodists regard as exotic and magical, continue to meet to keep their small churches alive.

Shortly after my arrival in Northern Ireland, I was attacked by a group of Catholic youth just steps from my church.  Knocked to the ground, I bled to keep the Wesleyan covenant alive in a divided Irish village.  In a move to bring peace, I walked with my attacker through a process of restorative justice to keep him out of prison.  He found treatment, therapy, and a job.  It was long and painful.  Our church committed to each step of the process.  They covenanted with me and the Catholic community.  That is a real Wesleyan covenant.  This was in a town, a church where John Wesley often preached when in Ireland.   However, this wasn’t because we were Methodist or Wesleyan.  It’s because we were followers of the risen Christ.  We happened to be Methodist.  Yes, our numbers were small but this didn’t matter.  Most of our neighbors were Roman Catholic, who cared?  Our covenants, made to God (not John Wesley) at our Baptisms were alive and well.

Methodism isn’t a hobby or I thing I do on vacation.  It’s my life.  I’ve spent a third of my professional career in the British and Irish Methodist churches.  I’ve served churches Wesley planted.  I took my family to Northern Ireland at considerable risk so we might be Methodists in a different time and place.  Yet, I cannot make the Wesleyan Covenant.  I will not join the covenant.  It’s got nothing to do with my “Methodist” credentials.

I can’t join the WCA because I’m not “Orthodox” enough.  I’m too nice to gay people.  I think they ought to be able to get married in the church and be ordained.  I believe Jesus, if he were among us today, would be ok with gay people being fully integrated in the life of the church.  John Wesley might not.  Here’s the thing, I value Jesus’ opinion much higher than I do John Wesley’s.  Sorry John.  This doesn’t mean we’re breaking up.  I’m just really in love with Jesus.

What Foolish People and Stories (Luke 15:1-10)

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He seems foolish, doesn’t he; this man who is at ease with sinners and tells stories where their characters do not seem all that wise.  Who does such things?  Given our lack of time and money and the needs of the many, who has time to risk so much for “one” sheep, a single coin, or even a person?  Isn’t it wasteful?  Yes.  Some argue that it is even immoral to risk so much for so little benefit.  To the detached observer, flipping channels and skimming the surface; “some” sound right.

But then again, it only sounds right if you subscribe to a basic definition of “lost”.  Lost means many things.  You don’t know you’re lost when you’re lost; just ask an addict who’s yet to hit rock bottom.  If you think your GPS is working and yet you’re in the wrong place, you’re still lost.  Being lost is relative; to location, time, distance, history, and ultimately perspective.

You may have become lost on purpose and not wish to be found.  We may know exactly where we are and yet the world believes us to be lost.  Lost-ness also presumes a degree of inquisition, does it not?  If you’re lost, shouldn’t something or someone be inquiring as to your location?  Perhaps.  Either we try to look for a way out or someone tries to find a way for us.  Lost is as multi-layered as a cake at a covered dish lunch.  Yes, you can look at being lost from any  number of angles.  All of them, whether by accident or design involve one common factor:  a connection is broken.  When we are lost, we are disconnected from something vital; usually the ideas, places, and people which help us to understand the world.  If we know anything, whether from science, technology, or theology it is this:  lost isn’t how we’re designed to operate.  We were built to be connected.

Jesus is asking, through the age old tradition of rabbinic storytelling one question; how far should we go to stay connected to each other and God?  Is anything (or anyone) ever worth writing off and loosing?  Step aside from the fractions, analogies, time, and images Jesus uses.  Both of these stories come down to this single question.  Is loss ever acceptable?

It’s a hard question to answer.  Why?   It’s simple.  We don’t picture ourselves as the one (or thing) who is lost.  We’re safely tucked away in the group of sheep who never have the good sense to run away and get lost.  We’re the well-earned money which stays unspent in the old woman’s wallet.  Jesus says think again.  It’s who we would like to be.  Our aspirations are higher than our reality.  We’re lost more often than we want to admit.

This is why Jesus uses such dramatic analogies.  He wants to grab our attention.  A story about 100 valuable sheep and an expensive coin puts the loss, risk, and gain into perspective.  Their initial reaction on hearing Jesus was probably, “what?”  It’s like asking Jordan a question.  Perhaps they did not hear him or maybe they weren’t paying attention?  They heard him.  We’ve listened to this story so many times that they incredulity and utter foolishness of the shepherd’s actions have been lost to our modern Christian ears.

Jesus describes something so foolish and imprudent.  Would go to such lengths for a single sheep?  No shepherd in the right mind would risk their entire herd for one sheep.  This is why there first response is one of disbelief.  What?  Did he say what I think he said?  Maybe this guy isn’t as smart as my cousin in Capernaum made him out to be.  When we listen to Jesus, this should be our first response.  His stories run counter to everything we’ve been taught.  He defies the conventional wisdom of the world and has so for two millennia.   If Jesus isn’t stopping us, slowing us down, and at least creating a “what?” speed bump in our brains, something is wrong.  This is how it is supposed to work.   Jesus wants to slow our thought processes and our lives down, just long enough, so we think, “Maybe there is another way to see the world.”

Jesus’ parables are memorable because their images are more powerful than words.  Parables are word pictures.  Jesus is telling us a story.  Jesus’ stories are not only something we view, as if we’re watching a movie on television.  When he tells a parable we become participants and characters in the action.  We’ve been there.  We know that man or woman because we are that person.  Jesus’ stories are our stories.

I’ve never been a shepherd.  When we lived in Ireland, where raising in sheep is a major source of agriculture income, I got to know shepherds.  I came to truly appreciate dumb sheep are.  I learned what a messy, time consuming business raising sheep has always been.  My love for this parable and the 23rd Psalm grew immensely.  However, I didn’t need that experience to get this story.  It’s not about the sheep.  It’s about the search for something lost.  The sheep, valuable and dumb as they may be, are only a means of getting to the larger point.

How do you look for something you’ve lost?  If you’ve misplaced a truly valuable item or an everyday object you need to find, what do you do?  What’s your method of looking?  Do you sit down in the last place you remember having the thing and start from there?  Are you logical, calm, and orderly in your search; like the Coast Guard searching for a boat missing at sea?

Or are you like me when I can’t find the remote control?  If I can’t find the remote, I’m frantic.  I start pulling apart couch cushions, looking under furniture, and yelling about the house, “Has anyone seen the remote?”  I will not rest until the remote has been found.  Everything, the cooking of dinner, the doing of homework has to stop so I can know the latest developments on the campaign trail.  The remote must be found.  I search frantically, enlist help, and leave no pillow unturned.

This, I believe, is the picture Jesus is painting.  While the shepherd searches and as the woman seeks, they are frenetic.  You are not laid back about trying to find something of value, something you love, or a piece of you that shouldn’t be missing.  I don’t think God is either.  This is how God searches for us; with such reckless abandon, nothing will prevent the connection from being restored.  God will rip apart hell, if that what it takes, to find what’s lost.  God goes after us; not out of vengeance or sin but because that’s what God does.  God finds the lost.

Luke says that God (and the angels) thrives on joy.   God seeks joy.  Jesus tells us that God does not seek suffering, pain, misery, wrath, or sorrow.  There’s something about joy which cannot be restrained to life as we know it.  Joy and happiness are not limited to the eight or nine decades we spend on this planet. Joy is eternal.  You know what it feels like to find that thing or to restore a relationship that was lost.  In that moment, that is a reflection of God’s own joyful presence.  We see and experience the reality of God in those moments.

Jesus tells us that joy is in the finding and being found.   The bad news is this:  we are still lost.  The good news:  we are always being found.

 

What Am I Supposed to Remember?

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What are we remembering?  I think it’s a fair question.  Are we recalling the events of September 11th in isolation?  By this I mean the hijacking, the planes flying into the buildings, and the way Americans responded in the immediate aftermath.  Is this anniversary only about the events of the day itself?  Or are we to call forth each successive event which has defined American life because of those actions? By this, do we remember the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Anthrax scares, terrorism at home and abroad, and this god awful campaign we are forced to witness?  If I’m reading the conventional wisdom properly, and I think I am, we’re being told to remember everything.  If you don’t remember it all, someone get’s slighted and we’re minimizing the death of someone somewhere.  At least that’s what I see.

While I understand both perspectives, I need to admit:  I’m tired of remembering.  I’m ready to forget a few things.  If I never see another body washed up on the shore of Greece, rubble in Syria, or attend another funeral I’d be fine.  It’s been a bloody 15 years and too many people have died.  I’m sick of being in the business of perpetual mourning and memory.  It would be nice to take a year off and remember some other time.  No can do.  It would be easier to cancel Christmas.

The ability to forget the past would be both a gift and burden.  We need the past to have a future.  How we remember is the key, isn’t it?  Memory is nothing if it’s not a fragile artifact handed from generation to generation.  As this holiday (I wince at calling September 11th a national holiday-holidays imply celebration; in remembering our resilience are we celebrating the death of innocents?) approaches, how are we handling the memories we’ve received?  Do we toss them around as manipulative tools to win elections?  Yes, without doubt.  Do we turn the pages of the past so quickly; we assign the wrong meaning to events?  The meaning we tender is crucial.  Do we understand the sacrifices of the past 15 in terms of a cosmic struggle between Abrahamic faiths?  Are we here today because the Islamic world “hates” our western freedoms?  Perhaps it’s simply one form of theodicy; we are suffering because we’ve screwed up and God believes it’s time to pay the piper.  Or is today an opportunity to love each other in the face of barbarism?

Love is a hard word to say on September 11th.  We loved those who we lost.  Yes, that’s true.  We can talk about love lost, torn, destroyed, and blow into rubble all day long.  Will we talk about who we can love today?  Like so many who lived through that day, I know where I was when I heard the news and watched the events unfold.  I know where I was.  We know what we did, who we helped and the contributions we made.  We’re great at the past tense.  Memory, or in its mass produced version called “nostalgia”,  blinds us to the future because we are bound to the past.  In telling the world where I was and what I felt, I’m limiting my ability to tell anyone about what I’m doing today or where I’ll be tomorrow.  The first disciples, the men and women who constituted the early church didn’t keep returning to Jesus’ empty tomb.  Jesus wasn’t there.  Hope doesn’t live among stones.  It’s gone to seek the hopeless.  Each year, about this time, America returns to the empty tombs of lower Manhattan, Shanksville, and the Pentagon.  And we wonder why the pain still seems fresh.  Why worship death in the face of resurrection? Isn’t that what you do?

Our central act of memory, the Eucharistic prayer called the “Great Thanksgiving”, recalls Jesus life, death, and resurrection.  It is a bold statement of the past, present, and future.   Within the words where Jesus asks us to remember, we are pulled from the past and death.  Our circumstances are changed. We are called to be two things:  holy and living.

Does the way we remember make us holy?  Have our means of recalling the tragedies of the past 15 years emphasized life or given power to death?  It seems, too often, we’re in the death retelling business and that’s good for ratings, wars, and campaigns.  I don’t want death to win. Can you remember the last time you felt holy and alive after September 11th?

Psalm 14 takes a pretty dim view of humanity.  The Lord, perched high in heaven, looks down on humanity and sees that no one wise or seeks God.  We’ve all turned bad.  To quote verses 3 and 4, “No one does good; not even one person!  Are they dumb, these evildoers?” Not even one person, says the Psalmist.  That includes you, me, the Pope, and the Council of Bishops.  We’re all indicted for our lack of goodness, wisdom, and abundant dumbness.  God has set the bar fairly low for us as we approach this September 11th.  Like an old drachma or a stupid sheep, we’re unaware of how lost and unwise we’ve become.  We’ll not be found by relying on our own faulty memories.  Life does not hide in the rubble, ruins, shopping malls, or tombs.  Life has gone fishing, somewhere in Galilee.

I really don’t know what to remember this September 11th.  But I do know this:  Jesus is not where you think he is.  And if we’re looking for salvation solely in our memories, we’re looking in the wrong place.