Things To Know When Visiting Our United Methodist Church

My Happy Face

1. You’re probably sitting in someone else’s seat.  Ask them to scoot.

2. We provide Bibles. If you bring your own, I’m guessing you’re a Baptist.

3. Turn your phone off.  I will ask to speak with whomever calls.

4. Today is Sunday. We do this every week about 11:00. Give or take.

5. We pray with our mouths, not with our hands.

6. It’s called a bulletin, not a pamphlet.

7. We have one bathroom. I clean it on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

8. Our communion bread is Hawaiian. You will love it.

9. If your ferry departs at 12:30, you can leave before the Benediction.

10. We’re glad you’re here.  This is my happy face.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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A Methodist’s Confessions

I inherited from my ancestors a story about God.

I accepted this bequeathed God as my God.

Faith is a gift, not a mandate.

On receiving of this faith, I understood that I did not possess God nor did God posses me.  God was not something I needed to prove.  God was an experience to live.

I realized I might have personal experiences with God in places like the ocean, forests, or walks home from school,  at church, and moments of serenity while driving home from work.

Within God’s creation, I exist among all life.

I believe in Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph the Carpenter and his wife, Mary.

Jesus was a carpenter, teacher, preacher, healer, and instigator of change.

Friend to ill-defined sinners, his life and work serve as role models for every Christian community.

Neither at home among his people or welcomed by the Romans who occupied his country, Jesus found his place among the outcasts. His work with the sick, homeless, impoverished, and marginalized of Galilee provides a foundation for the church’s ministry.

Jesus embodies the totality of God’s love for humanity.

I believe God’s spirit is the unseen reality of God’s presence.  To be open to God’s spirit is to be open to God’s presence working in the lives of other people.

I believe the church is a community and a place to proclaim new life and God’s love for all people; regardless of race, sexual orientation, worth in dollars, or any other factor used to discriminate human beings.  

Richard Lowell Bryant

Apocalyptic Mark and The Grass Roots

I don’t like Apocalyptic Mark. I prefer Binding the Strong Man Mark, Healing the Sick Mark, and Causing the Blind to See Mark. What does that mean? It’s another way of saying I prefer my Jesus like I like my coffee, not as dark as gas station coffee.

In Mark 13, Jesus becomes pessimistic. Unlike his usual, “let’s go save the world” cherry self he initiates a conversation with the disciples about the destruction of the temple. For Jesus, his followers, and Mark’s first-century readers, that’s another way of talking about the end of the world. Peter, James, John, and Andrew’s attention is piqued. “Tell us, when will these things happen? What sign will show that all these things are about to come to an end?”

Jesus could have told disciples anything. He might have offered a list of checkpoints and historical benchmarks to look for and expect on their way toward cultural and social annihilation. He might have said I you see these things, buy a bunker and run for the hills:

• the return of nationalism as a political agenda
• devastating natural disasters wiping out a large area of both coasts
• a fact-free, post-truth society
• vilification of the other
• forest fires in California
• the schism of the United Methodist Church (assuming the disciples possessed an incredible degree of foresight and believed Methodism to be as important as some people do)
• wars you can watch on your handheld device, such as the one from Yemen
• hurricanes in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and the Philippines
• the 10th outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1976

He didn’t say any of those things.   But to listen to some people, you think he did.  They would have you believe those are the very signs of Jesus’ immediate arrival on Flight 421 from Tel Aviv.  Jesus didn’t know about Ebola, Hurricanes, or the likelihood of Santa Ana winds causing fires to ravage areas of Southern California. In fact, Jesus had never heard of California. If Jesus had heard of either California or Ocracoke, he might have come here and taken up surfing.

Jesus knew what he’d experienced in the little area of life he’d traveled between Capernaum and Jerusalem. In that small world, violence was common. War was an everyday occurrence. Hearing of war or being in a battle wasn’t the exception, it was the rule. Famine is still a familiar fact of life in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The earthquakes which shook the ancient world are prevalent across Iran, Iraq, and into Central Asia even today. So what’s Jesus saying? In short, be on the lookout for life. The disasters or so-called “signs” aren’t cosmological rarities to be interpreted by divinely ordained prophets. They are life itself. We live among these awful, horrible, tragedies and disasters. They suck the marrow from our souls. As such, everything is the beginning of something related to what we may or may not call the end of the world.

Life is a precursor to death. Whoa, that’s deep Jesus. Maybe Apocalyptic Mark is one big prophetic windup reminding the disciples to do as the Grass Roots once said:

“Sha la la la la la live for today
Sha la la la la la live for today
And don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, hey
Sha la la la la la live for today (live for today)”

Richard Lowell Bryant

Happy Armistice Day to John Tolkien and Jack Lewis

John Tolkien

Jack Lewis

Today is the official observance of Veteran’s Day. However, much of the weekend and corresponding celebrations have marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It is fitting that the “war to end all wars” and the first great conflict of the twentieth century be remembered. The forces of nationalism and militarism which drove the great powers of Europe to battle have become resurgent since the late 20th century. In many of the same places which first sparked conflict a hundred years ago, troops still fight over conflicts that were unable to be solved in Versailles, Yalta, Dayton, or Paris.

World War One is an essential moment for many reasons. Many of the theologians who’ve shaped my understanding of God and God’s interactions with humanity were themselves formed as persons of faith (no faith) in the trenches of the western front. I would not be who I am and carry what understanding I do of faith were it not for John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Clive Staples Lewis. Both men, junior officers at the western front, experienced some of the most horrific combat at the height of the war. The barbaric, bloody slaughter of humanity, witnessed by both men, shaped their ideas of good and evil.

Tolkien was already a committed Roman Catholic. On joining the Lancashire Fusiliers, he went “over the top” on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Almost sixty thousand British soldiers died on the first day alone. By the end of the battle, over four hundred thousand were dead.

Lewis, the emerging agnostic/atheist, was a lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry. Wounded in the spring of 1918 in the Somme Valley, he too saw the worst of trench warfare. As the shells landed, he watched his friends die, and his life was spared.
Neither man knew each other at the time. When their paths crossed, not through pure theology or philosophy, but via fiction, new worlds opened. It became possible to talk about God in ways the world had forgotten. God lived in the larger myths that our souls, for too long, had willingly ignored. Both of them discovered that there was a hunger for stories for which our own personal history might connect.

I believe that buried in the gore of the trenches, amid the unspeakable horrors, seeds were planted for stories that would grow above the dark days of the Somme. Neither Tolkien or Lewis probably didn’t realize the impact of their ideas. They only knew they were there, inside them, not part of the war. “There” is a huge place; until you put in on paper, draw a map, and invite people to go on a journey. That’s what they did. They drew us a map. Look what we found. Look who’s here! Who know knew what lay beyond middle earth or past a simple wardrobe? I found God. What about you?

Richard Lowell Bryant

Stop The Killing

Stop the killing.  I don’t know what else to say.  Put down the instruments of death. Stop the rage.  Stop the anger.  End the murder.  This world we’ve created, one of perpetual mass murder and generational loss must end.  Today’s shooting is tomorrow’s suicide.  At some point, the death must stop.  Humanity is not a herd to be culled one massacre at a time.  If you believe God to be Holy and creation sacred, then you must wish the killing to end.  Does America think life matters enough that massacres shouldn’t be a way of life in 21st century America?  I am not sure we do.  We are very comfortable with the status quo.  Americans appear willing to live a “mass shooting” roulette lifestyle.  It could be at school, the mall, or at a nightclub.  Who knows?  It’s the chance we take on the freewheeling, gun-toting, God-loving, Bible-believing rollercoaster we’re blessed to ride.  However, the moment our society becomes comfortable with death efficiently delivered on an industrial scale, much of the progress and hope we’ve planned for the future will be irrelevant.  Who’s going to buy a smart refrigerator in a polarized society where you’re afraid to go out of your house?  Will it tell you which weapon to carry to the grocery store or which people with mental health issues have firearms? I don’t want to live in that world.

Death cannot lead to more death.  Violence begets violence.  Those who live by the semi-automatic sword are dying by the bump stock.  More guns, whether in church or synagogues, are not the answer.

I’ve also grown weary of “thoughts and prayers.”  I know the victims need our thoughts and prayers.  We’ve been praying for victims of gun violence for days upon days, week after week, month after month, and year after year.  I’ve prayed as soon as I’ve heard about the tragedies and for months and years after the events.  Then, I’ll wake up, like this morning and twelve more people are dead.  I’ll pray.  I’ll study scripture for inspiration.  I spend time in the sanctuary.  Here’s what concerns me.  Because of the frequency and horror of these events, I’m worried no one is listening to my prayers.   I feel like I’m talking myself.  Is God not there, ignoring us, or tired of wanton appetite for self-destruction?

I don’t know.   Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.  That’s how it feels.

Here’s what I do know:  stop the killing.  Death is not the answer.

Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant

Truth Telling Jesus

Did Jesus Ever Wave a Bible Around When He Preached?

Human beings have the unique ability to create fear and crisis from thin air.  I think this a gift unique to our species.  If there is no real threat to our lives, way of life, or ability to worship; we will find one, exploit it, and draw others toward the fear.  For some reason, we seem happier when we’re afraid.  If we tell others about our fears and they agree that our concerns are valid, even better.  What are we afraid of?  Our Methodist anxieties range from the innocuous as a bump in the night, or our understanding of traditional marriage, at other times it’s a caravan of migrants from Honduras.

Because an idea isn’t real doesn’t mean the concept can’t be shrouded in the garments of truth; especially if I want your vote, money, or to attend my church.  It takes work to make a lousy lie seem respectable.  Look at the political ads, rallies, and speeches over the past few months.  They are full of outright lies, half-truths, and deception. Despite the apparent distortions, we allow ourselves to be lied to and consider lies as part of our rational political (and in some cases theological) discourse.   Enough money, television airtime, and words spoken at the right time can make some lies seem accurate.  We tolerate lies (“they all do it”) because no one expects to be told the truth.  The truth is undermined at critical moments.  Is there anywhere to go but down?  Where do people of faith turn for the facts in a world full of willing distortion? What do we do if we’re sick of the lies?

First, we commit to living as truth-tellers.  Then we turn to Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus’ description of himself as the “the way, the truth, and the life” in John 14:6 provides an appropriate benchmark.  Jesus is our standard for truth, truth-telling, and truth-living.  If something doesn’t measure up adequately with Jesus’ standard of truth, then we know we’re dealing with plans, propositions, and ideas which run counter to unfolding Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

Jesus’ ideas about truth aren’t confined to the pages of the Gospels.  They are to be applied to the pages of our life journey.  Jesus’ truth should be a lived experience.

We read scripture to understand Jesus’ embodied truth.  Jesus lived in an era before the Creeds and Ecumenical Councils.  His truth was not a doctrinal statement of faith.  Instead, his truth was built on relationships with those who could not read statements of faith, would never be allowed near altars, and lived on the margins of society.  Jesus believed in the truth of economic justice and fair wages for lower-income workers in Galilee.  Those closest to the land were closest to God.  Subsistence farmers and local fisherman lived the parabolic truth that Jesus spoke into being.  Jesus believed that the truth of God’s love could be best experienced by restoring the physical and mental health of hundreds upon hundreds of people.  Jesus believed in the truth that said real wealth could not be measured by traditional means.  The truth about prayer said Jesus, was nothing like it was done, taught, or practiced.  Jesus’ truth taught that forgiveness is more significant than any distance perceived between humanity and the being we call God.

Next time someone has a plan, perhaps to start a new denomination or build a huge fence with beautiful barbed wire, ask yourself, “How do these plans measure up against the truth-telling, life-giving, all-loving, never Bible-waving Jesus?”  Do you want to try and answer the question?

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

 

All Saints’ Sunday (Revelation 21:1-6)

How do you envisage eternity?  What is your idea of heaven?  Is it a collage created solely from your own imagination?  Or is it shaped by a bit of art, music, and even some scripture?  Most people’s image of “the good place” is formed by music.

I heard about a mansion
He has built for me in glory.
And I heard about the streets of gold
Beyond the crystal sea;
About the angels singing,
And the old redemption story,
And some sweet day I’ll sing up there
The song of victory. 

I’ve sung “Victory in Jesus” for nearly forty years.  If you sing it long enough, as many of us have, you start to hold on to words like “mansion” and “Streets of Gold” and “beyond the crystal sea.”  Whether accurate or not, my earliest images of eternity were rooted in the third verse of Victory in Jesus.  I didn’t know where Eugene Bartlett, the writer of those words, found in his inspiration.  Did he see how the roads were paved in heaven?  Was there something in the Bible about the Divine Department of Transportation?  If I received a mansion, were my parents going to live with me?  I had lots of questions.  Remember, I was seven, learning to play piano and the idea of heaven was about as difficult to grasp as stretching my little hands to play an octave.

At other times, our images of heaven come from literature and art.  When people during the Renaissance read Dante and then attempted to illustrate The Divine Comedy (with the levels of heaven and hell), they drew what he wrote.  Hell and Heaven came alive as multilayered regions of sinners and saints.  Dante’s words seeped so deeply into the intellectual water of the western world, most of us don’t realize that many of the images we have in our mind of heaven or hell aren’t Biblical they’re Italian.

On All Saints’ Sunday, as we remember those who have gone ahead “to a good place,” to their just reward in eternity, where do our images of Heaven come from?  Has someone created a picture, from thin air, handed it to us, and said this is eternity?  Perhaps the Bible gives us something more to go on.  Might scripture point us toward more significant areas of clarity as we reflect on the afterlife?  As we attempt to envision eternity, perhaps we can draw our own picture instead of relying on the images others? I think this is important because we know the saints in our lives.

We don’t want someone else to paint a picture on our behalf.  It’s like picking out a greeting card.  Someone does the artwork and design, but you want the message to be as personal as possible.

I want to think about the saints who’ve gone before and how we picture eternity beyond the metaphors of wealth and extravagance that creep into our language when we talk about the transition from death to eternal life.  I’ve officiated at more funerals than I want to remember.  However, the talk of mansions of glory, streets of gold and pearly gates have never made me comfortable.  Jesus was not a worldly show off in life and I’m not sure why we make him one in death.  It doesn’t make sense.

The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, offers some insights on the culmination of time – when all the saints are reunited.  John, exiled to the Greek Island of Patmos, has a vision God’s plan to unite heaven and earth.  Heaven, as we usually talk about it, is only half of the equation.  God’s idea has always been to join earth and heaven into one place.  This shouldn’t sound strange to us.  We talk about this idea and even pray for this idea to come into existence every Sunday morning.

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

That’s right!  This idea of uniting the coming kingdom of God with what’s happening here on Earth is at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer.  We say it every week! Our vision of eternity begins, in some form, with a realization of what we mean in the Lord’s Prayer:  earth and Heaven coming together.

Revelation 21:1 begins:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”   There’s a lot there so let’s unpack it slowly.  Heaven and earth are both new.  If we use our paradigm, the one we take to funerals and sing about, who would have thought the pearly gates, mansions, and streets of Gold would ever wear out.  If you’ve moved into a hilltop mansion in heaven before Revelation 21:1 do you have to move out because you’re in old heaven?  Also, the sea is no more.  If there is no sea, where are people going to fish in the afterlife and enjoy Heavenly sunsets?  It could make for some uncomfortable funerals on Ocracoke.

Here’s my point:  how we picture eternity, where our beloved saints rest in peace, does not depend on a checklist or paint by numbers scenario.  This was John’s vision, it’s not yours.  Variations in our life experiences, religious journeys, and personal stories will impact how we understand God’s kingdom becomes a reality on Earth.

Revelation 21 offers a portrait of newness and renewal.  This gives me a measure of hope.  In the tiredness and fatigue of life and the hopelessness and grief of death, I read a promise of new life and comfort.  The Kingdom of Heaven comes to Earth, God comes here, once again, to make all things new.  It’s not the other way around.  This is why we say, “on earth, as it is in Heaven.”   It’s not the details that matter most in this passage.  If you’re focusing on the cosmology of heaven, the thermostat of hell, or the pavement on Hallelujah Avenue, you’re missing the point.   It’s the message, like mortar, holding the story of God’s kingdom together.  What is that message?  Look at verse 4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more.  There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.  “Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I’m making all things new.”  It the same as the Lord’s Prayer.  Heaven is at the other end of the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus’ prayer implies what John envisions in Revelation.  Heaven, the Kingdom of God, is wherever God’s will is done.   What do you think “thy kingdom come” means?  You don’t need to wait for death to experience the presence and reality of God’s unfolding Kingdom.

No matter your vision of eternity, is “newness” is in there somewhere?  Eternity could be a better version of Ocracoke or angels on escalators or even your favorite hymn come to life.  I don’t know.  I know this, whatever eternity is, so many wonderful people are already there.  I am grateful for them all.  May your love for them be renewed by God’s words of comfort and assurance.  May the newness of this day bring their memories meaning and your lives purpose.

Richard Lowell Bryant