A Hard Week To Call Yourself a United Methodist Christian

We are facing a momentous few days in United Methodism. In just over a week, delegates from all over the world will gather in St. Louis, Missouri to make a decision on the “Way Forward.” What does this mean? Methodists, like other mainline denominations such as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, are coming to terms with what it means to welcome LGBTQ persons into our congregations and ordained ministry. This is has been a very heated discussion in Methodism for many years. Now, the church is in a place to make a decision, one way or the other, or seek a compromise. Emotions are running high because both sides in this debate feel strongly about their positions. When this process is over, some people may decide they can no longer remain in the United Methodist Church. Others may look to create new versions of Methodism which reflect their theological priorities and understanding of scripture.

Like much in our country, what’s happening in the church feels disconcerting and confusing. Our church is polarized. The state of our religious discourse is tribal and toxic. It’s hard to find common ground amid the clichés and church jargon. Fear drives our responses to the world around us. Despite our differences, most people share one premise: We don’t want our church, country, or life to change into something that feels less comfortable and less holy. We like our routines and habits. We also prefer our interpretations of scripture.

In one moment, I find myself asking, “Why can’t we all get along?” In the next, I will seek every opportunity to proclaim God’s love for each of those God made. I don’t want to get along.  It is a confusing time. I have found that when the world feels this uncertain, it is an excellent time to reflect. How did we get here? What brought us to the moment? Why do we think this way about a specific issue? If we have a good idea about what brought us to this point, we might find a way forward.

My reflection begins with today, this time in history. After following the debates over the future of the United Methodist Church for many years, attending countless meetings and conferences, it’s hard to know what to think about United Methodism. I really don’t know. The anger on display, the self-righteous strutting of those seeking to gain power over others, and our love of the institutional church itself lead me to believe that our current incarnation has little to do with Christianity. In many ways, we’re like a spiritually active civic club with chapters across America. That’s not who we set out to be, but it’s who we’ve become.

We don’t feel Christian. Methodism, on a bad day, pulls me away from Christianity. I’m lured into the trap of caring more about what means to be a United Methodist with a pension and a home to live in than I am someone who is identified as a Christian. I don’t like to believe my Methodist identity trumps my Christianity.  It shouldn’t.  Methodism doesn’t have a monopoly on following Jesus.  At best, they should co-exist. These past few years, even that’s been a challenge.

Not that being a Christian is any more comfortable than clinging on to Methodism. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ make it next to impossible to call oneself a Christian. Sex scandals in every denomination, the co-opting of faithful people as pawns for partisan politics, and Christianity’s slowness to meet the needs of a hurting world make hard to say, “I’m a Christian.” I want to say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not like those people who do these hurtful things.” Then, despite my best intentions, I realize that anytime I say, “Those people” I’ve already tossed vital elements of my faith out the door. So yes, in 2019 it’s hard to identify as “Christian.” Given all the caveats placed on what one must believe (by believers on all sides of the spectrum), I don’t know if I match anyone else’s definition of being a Christian other than my own.

If I feel out of place and unable to identify with either Methodism or Christianity, what do I do? If the ideas and attitudes have become so polluted by politics, fear, and the vagaries of human emotion; where do I look?  If I don’t know what to do with the institution of United Methodism and Christianity looks nothing at all like I remember in Vacation Bible School; I can go find Jesus. Jesus isn’t an institution or idea. (We’ve tried to make him one.) At a point in history, there he stood. His words, recorded by his followers, are an undeniable testament to God’s priorities. Those words remain mine to read and then to share. They are a call to engage with God beyond our institutional priorities, tribal politics, and justifications. I may not know where I relate to United Methodism. At times, I am uncertain about labeling myself Christian in 2019. However, I can always return to Jesus.

Where do I go? I gather with the crowds who’ve come to hear him speak. These listeners and onlookers are my people. I can feel their energy and enthusiasm. By the seashore, people came from all directions. They could see, hear, and explore the impact of his words in ways we’ve lost. Jesus was unfiltered. There were no attempts to make him more understandable or applicable to the lives of the listeners. When Jesus speaks, life makes more sense. I get what he says. He moves me in ways Saint Augustine or John Wesley never has. Listen to his words:

“Blessed are the poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.” Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

Jesus sees the poor and hungry. We love to talk about the poor. We fly to visit the poor in other countries while neglecting the poor on our doorstep.  By acknowledging what is difficult for us to see, Jesus draws us closer to serving others.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” I can always return to Jesus. Jesus knows the broad sweep of human emotions. He accepts that there is a joy to be lived and sorrow to be embraced. I recognize there is room for me and my baggage in Jesus’ life.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors to did to the prophets.”

Jesus knows it’s hard to walk the line between religious expectations, tradition, and a world in need. If you come back home to Jesus and rely on his words, some people are going to hate what you say and do. Some people will hate what I’m writing. A strong response, according to Jesus, is a measure of success. Keeping our identity formed by our interactions with Jesus, despite the reactions we receive, is part of building the kingdom.

We can take Jesus’ words, package them as our own, and offer it to the world as Methodism or some other variety of Christianity. Or, we can mingle with the crowds and listen to Jesus.

Despite the structures, systems, and commissions which define our way of life as United Methodists (and Christians); it is still possible to associate ourselves with Jesus. Everything else is window dressing. This is us, who we are; the poor, hungry, troubled, joyful, and alive.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Advertisements

7 Pauline Lessons That Can Help Our Denominational Discourse

1. “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Simplify our worship, prayer, and community time.  Let’s make everyone feel welcome.  Be aware of anything that makes worship an insider experience.   Joy doesn’t need jargon.

2. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection.” (Romans 12:9-10)

Love is the guiding principle of the Christian tradition. Be reticent in labeling people or ideas as evil. Focus on love, goodness, and mutual affection. This is hard.  However, it’s all we have. Who needs another option when love is on the table?

3. “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8: 31)

“These things” are our lifeblood. We talk “these things” to death. Our “things” are important, and there is much to be determined. If we’re working in conjunction with God’s will, why are we so concerned with being right? In our search for allies, have we neglected the greatest ally of all? The determination of rightness rests with God.

4. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)

This moment, these decisions, and these arguments will all be history. Something better, in the eschatological sense, is inevitable. If we believe that the arc of history is bending toward reconciliation, we’re on the crest.  Let’s stay put.

5. “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry. We do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1)

Our ministries are defined by mercy. We exist in mercy and work by mercy. Are there plans or ideas that embrace mercy to a greater extent than another? In mercy, we see the light of eschatological hope. If we find mercy we find God’s will.

6. “Look at what is before your eyes. If you are confident that you belong to Christ, remind yourself of this, that just as you belong to Christ, so also do we.” (2 Corinthians 10:7)

We all belong to Christ. Look for Christ in those with whom you agree and disagree.

7. “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge so that you may be fulfilled with the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 4:18-19)

Humility is hard to embrace.  We should study humility every day. Paul’s prayer that we may be fulfilled (find enough) in God’s fullness is a reminder to embrace humility.  If we’ve made enough space for God’s fullness, there is less room for our egos.

Richard Lowell Bryant

I Love It When People Tell Me What I Need To Do

We are in the proverbial “calm” before the storm. As we come down to the wire, this is the period before any big Christian blow up (i.e., General Conference) where the self-righteous fence riders tell everyone else to go to our opposite corners to pray and fast. Of course, sanctimonious fence riders are the only ones with real virtue; they take no official positions, claim to be above the debate, and are always ready to tweet, “If we’d only pray, fast, and do God’s will” we could all continue living with our head in the sands of late 20th century Methodism.

As the Snickers commercials say, I’m not me when I’m hungry. I hate fasting. I do not believe that my preference for three sensible meals a day will someway impact General Conference or my opinions on a way forward. Fasting, despite my need to lose a few pounds, I reject out of hand. I need to feel well to be well. I’m sure God doesn’t want me dragging and undernourished, especially during a nasty flu season.

I’m pro-prayer. However, I don’t believe in weaponized prayer. The moment I start praying against something, my motives become unclear. Is this prayer about God or me? Rather than pray for a preferred outcome or the demise of my adversaries, I prefer the model of the Lord’s Prayer. There Jesus tells us to ask that God’s will be done on “Earth as it is in Heaven.” That’s a big ask, yet I’m comfortable with God’s will being the primary goal of any prayer. While others may have gone to their corners and heeded the calls of the mealy mouth moderates who want us to all get along; I’m not praying for my preferred plan or against another. I’m going to pray that whatever happens is better than our present reality. To me, an inclusive and loving church is the embodiment of God’s will.

Should I pray for an outcome that doesn’t divide the church and respects the humanity of all persons in the church? If the United Methodist Church is pursuing God’s will, then those outcomes will be foregone conclusions. The Christ who died for all did not leave rules on who may enter the church. The boundaries and limits of God’s presence have always been of our design.

Here’s why: If God is who I believe God to be; everyone is welcome into ministry, marriage, or United Methodism. If God is who I think God to be, God’s love will be a stronger presence than any of our attempts to interpret ancient doctrine in a modern context. If God is who I believe God to be, comfort and compassion will define our future instead of separation and segregation. If God is who I think God is, we will realize the Beatitudes are just the beginning. There is a whole world we can continue to bless.

Richard Lowell Bryant

If You Can Get Past the Special Effects, It’s Just Another Call Story (Isaiah 6:1-8)

You probably know the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.”  It’s emotive melody and lyrics adapted from Isaiah 6 make it an ideal song for reflecting on God’s call in our life.

Who will bear my light to them?

Whom shall I send?  Here I am Lord.

Is it I Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.

The idea of being called and sent is centered on one line, “Whom shall I send?  Here I am Lord.”  Those words, as we heard a moment ago, come from the prophet Isaiah.  In one of the most dramatic call scenes of the entire Bible, the 6th chapter tells the story of how Isaiah came to understand his role as a prophet.  Isaiah shares an intensely personal experience which is difficult to describe. Instead, it’s Isaiah’s story to tell and ours to try and understand.  If these verses sound like science fiction or fantasy, you’d be right.  Isaiah is trying to describe a vision.  Visions, in the Bible, aren’t bound by the rules of reality.

The chapter begins with a frame of reference. Isaiah wants to tell us when his vision happened.  It was when King Uzziah died, and his son Jotham inherited the throne.  You all know when King Uzziah died, don’t you?  This is Isaiah’s way of saying, “it was just after JFK was shot and Johnson became president.”  The reign of the king is a frame of reference everyone knew.  In this case, he’s telling us around 750 BC.

Seven hundred and fifty years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah experienced a vision of God sitting on a throne in heaven.  Like lots of these visions, at one instant he is observing events and then all of a sudden, he’s part of the action.  That’s how these prophetic visions flow.  Isaiah’s understanding of God is rooted in the image of a king.  God’s palace in heaven is depicted as the most opulent home on Earth to an exponential level.

The Lord is seated on a throne.  His robe is so immense that it fills the temple.  Heavenly creatures with six wings each, angel-like beings, are flying overhead.  There is no space which is not occupied by God.  Because they’re in the presence of God, their feet and heads are veiled.  Not only are they flying, but these winged beasts are also shouting:  “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!”  Their roar is so fierce that the whole building shakes and smoke billows from all directions.

Isaiah realizes he’s seeing things no mortal has ever witnessed.  This is more than a glimpse of heaven.  He is experiencing a vision of God’s totality.  This is overwhelming beyond description. His reaction is simple, “this is too much.  I am not able to comprehend everything I’ve been seen.  I am too messed up to be standing in the presence of something so holy.”  Isaiah defines this apprehension as “sin.”  Sin doesn’t mean he’s an evil person.  Instead, he is acknowledging his humanity.  Question:  what does God want us to do in the first place?  God wants us to be who God created us to be.  God knows us inside and out.  Isaiah is in a place where he can be (or start to realize) the best version of himself, the whole person God created.  God wants you to be you, not as you compare yourself to others or your circumstances.  We are called to be the person God formed us to be.  Isaiah is finally becoming Isaiah.  When we take steps toward fully becoming the people God created us to be, we’re then in a place to partner with God and live in conjunction with God’s will like never before.

Here’s where it gets really strange. As if seeing God on his throne isn’t enough; one of the winged creatures approaches and speaks to Isaiah.  It’s one thing to behold this grand vision of heaven.  It’s another thing to be drawn into a conversation with a heavenly being.  Doesn’t it raise all sorts of questions?  What language did they speak?

The heavenly being responds to Isaiah’s concerns.  Before Isaiah goes any further, the story tells us, God makes an effort to reassure Isaiah.  His spiritual, emotional, and mental health are as important to God as the grand displays of smoke and opulence. The angel takes a lump of hot coal and symbolically touches it to Isaiah’s lips.  Remember, everything is symbolic.   This is still a vision, a representation of something beyond reality.  The angel says, “See, this has touched your lips.  Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”  My question is this:  was it ever there in the first place?  Like many of us, does Isaiah carry baggage; weight we inherited, trauma passed down, bags we choose, and accept that whatever’s in our hands must be our sin and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Who knows?

Isaiah’s liberation from what he thought prevented him from serving God occurs in an instance.  He is still Isaiah.  What changed, because of the creature’s actions, was his perspective.  Sin wasn’t a permanent obstacle to serving God.  If that were true, the church could close up shop, and we’d all go home.   Isaiah needed to hear that guilt isn’t something which permanently defines us.  The angel helped him make a choice:  life or sin.

Remember, Isaiah is much more than a passive observer.  Isaiah is not watching God’s grand design unfold.  He is an active participant in his own redemption story.   Are we?  That is the Good News, the Gospel on display in this chapter.  Why do I say this?  Listen to the Lord’s question.  It takes us back to the beginning of the message.  This is the first time the Lord speaks directly.  “Whom should I send and who will go for us?”  That’s when Isaiah steps up to the plate.  He wants in the game he wants to be part and parcel of God’s ongoing love story with humanity.  What does he say?  “I am here, send me.”

Put me in the game, coach.  I will go, speak, and do what you need me to do and where you want me to go.  There’s no need for an elaborate monologue, it’s merely “Yes God, It’s me, I’ll do it.”  Why can he respond so quickly and effectively?  What’s the difference between verse 8 and verse 1?  It’s our baggage, guilt, and sin.  What he thought he couldn’t bear, the load too heavy to lug any further, through one gesture, Isaiah realized he might be his own worst enemy.  He also saw that God was providing help, freedom, and perspective he never considered.  Does that sound like anyone you know?

I think it reminds me of each of us.  We’re all carrying around more sin than we should.  It is as if we haul so much guilt about we buy luggage just for malformed spiritual lives.  Much of it is baggage we choose to lug through our lives.  When God shows up on the scene, we’re blown away.  How could God be with us in such a place as this?  Doesn’t God know what we carry and who we are?  Yes, and with the touch of a finger and being told “it’s going to be OK,” we can make the same transition as Isaiah.  We can go from gawking observers to participants in the Good News.  Will we listen?  Are you on the lookout for God’s presence?  I hope so; because your “here I am moment” is closer than you realize.

Richard Lowell Bryant

4 Life Lessons from Isaiah

What life lessons can we learn by reading the Old Testament prophets? Given the current state of our political and spiritual discourse, is there wisdom to be gleaned by re-reading Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel? Do they offer a coherent philosophy beyond their visions and mystic experiences? I think so. Fortunately, we need to look no further than the sixth chapter of Isaiah for a bit of guidance, wisdom, and advice.

1. “I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple.” Isaiah 6:1

Look around at your surroundings. Take a chance on letting the world inspire you to a new sense of awe. There’s no need to comment on everything. Parts of life are so engaging, we need only observe what’s right before our eyes.

2. “The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting and the house was filled with smoke.” Isaiah 6:4

We are surrounded by noise, some of it good and some bad. We need to be able to distinguish between the two. Sometimes the shouting isn’t about us or something we’ve done wrong. Instead, it’s a way of getting a message out to those needing to hear affirmation and encouragement.  Many people are unable to speak for themselves or have been silenced by their circumstances. The real message isn’t in the shouting or the smoke. We wait for the pauses and silence that follow.

3. “I said, ‘Mourn for me; I am ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips and live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!’” Isaiah 6:5

We are taught and formed to be self-critical. In a world that feeds on negativity, our fragile self-images are easily overwhelmed when we encounter the smallest acts of kindness and goodness. On many occasions, we are doubtful of any good intention we encounter. As this text shows, we don’t have to live this way.

4. “He touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed and your sin is removed.’” Isaiah 6:7

Our emotional and moral baggage is not a permanent part of our lives. Was our “sin” present in the first place? Was the “sin” truly “sin” or was it another bag we’d been given to carry? 

Four verses with four lessons. Take a look around and ask some questions. Where do we need to stand to see the world, listen to something other than the cultural noise, and realize we’re not the sinners we imagine ourselves to be?  Isaiah 6 gives us a place to start.

Richard Lowell Bryant

7 Reasons I’m Excited, Scared, Happy, Nervous for General Conference

 

1. Do we trust God to call us to become the best versions of ourselves?  Somedays yes, other days no. In other words, trusting God is easier said than done.  This is a little scary.

2. I am excited because we have the opportunity to move towards a more grace-filled communion. Grace is not something to be decided by committee, commissions, councils, or boards.  Unfettered grace will open doors locked for fifty years.

3. We have the ability to give birth to a new, inclusive Methodism. Church no longer need be about managing decline.

4. We are stepping into a space where we can listen to God. Will we stop and listen?

5. There is not a pox on anyone’s house. Fear runs through every position, plan, and proposal. If we weren’t afraid, we wouldn’t be human. This is an opportunity to confront our fears.

6. Ideas are not our problem. Loving our brothers and sisters who disagree with us; that’s our issue. I am excited because this is a chance to work on love like I have never done before.

7. I am excited because so much I believe in is on the line. I’m overwhelmed to be alive at this moment in our history.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Did Jesus Ask Peter What He Believed Before He Invited Him To Follow?

When Jesus joined the crew of Simon Peter’s fishing boat after a long night catching nothing, I learned one thing: commercial fishing is hard work. I didn’t realize the level of work until I moved to a fishing village along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Many of our 800 or so residents are fishermen. Like Peter, James, and John; they fish with large nets, all night long.  They do this to support their families. They work incredibly hard for sometimes very little return.

It was in the midst of this kind of fatigue and exasperation that Jesus met Simon Peter. After borrowing Simon’s boat to serve as a floating pulpit, Jesus instructed Simon to go a little further and deeper into the water. You know the story of Simon’s incredulity. “These waters are empty. We fished here all night.” He thought further efforts were pointless. Whether out of a sense of hospitality to his guest or because he was simply out of options, Peter acquiesced. “Yes, Jesus, we’ll do it.”

He did it and the fish came. They were all rightly amazed. I’m less astonished by the fish, Peter taking advice from a part-time carpenter, and economic windfall soon to grace their families. Something else grabs my attention. I have read this passage countless times, and I’ve yet to find Jesus posing a question about doctrine, theology, worship, or religious law to Peter or his crew. It’s not there.

While racked with doubt and amazement at second guessing Jesus’ internal fish radar, Peter is never put on the religious spot. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to repeat a creed. Peter isn’t questioned about his beliefs on the Trinity, same-sex marriage, same-sex ordination, third-trimester abortion, or a wall across southern Gaza. Why didn’t Jesus ask these questions? Doesn’t Jesus know he’s leading the battle in the culture war for the heart and soul of everything that has ever been good, right, and holy? Does Jesus not realize that God-fearing people like him are supposed to be aggressive when making new disciples? No, Jesus seems heaven-bent on welcoming everyone despite the Orthodox standards we insist Jesus follow, especially if he wants to feel welcome in United Methodist circles.

Jesus didn’t have a litmus test for Peter, James, or John. He doesn’t have one for us either. There are a variety of litmus tests for contemporary United Methodists, and some treat these codes as if they were created by Jesus. This isn’t reflective of Jesus’ priorities. It’s more about Methodism and our need to be in control and determine those we believe worthy of entrance into God’s kingdom.

At the end of the story, Jesus says to Simon, “Don’t be afraid.” As we head into the General Conference Methodists are fearful. Is it possible to “not be afraid”? I believe the background noise concerning one plan or the other is too great for us to hear Jesus’ words. We’re confident of our ability to save ourselves and that God is on our side. We’ve jumped through our own hoops. We want the world to see how holy we are. The Methodists are in charge of their own destiny.  What’s there to be afraid of?

I’ll save that list for another day.

Richard Lowell Bryant