Waiting for The Next Great Leap Forward

Mao encouraged Zeng to experiment with the so-called “responsibility fields.” “Give it a try,” he reportedly said. “If it doesn’t work, carry out self-criticism. If it works well . . . that will be splendid!”

–Pankaj Mishra

I am uncomfortable with the word “accountability”.  That’s not because I don’t want to be accountable.  I love being accountable.  That’s why I sign my full name to everything I write.  I take ownership for what I do.  It’s more about the implications raised by the word.  For example, am I able to trust those to whom I am accountable?  What will my brothers and sisters do with my accountability and I with theirs?

Though required to attend accountability groups, no one ever seems to know why we’re there or what we’re supposed to do.  Despite the varied structure accountability groups adopt, they often devolve into sessions where pastors complain about their work and those they are called to shepherd.

I’ve never been in a group where any serious issues emerged.  Whether out of fear, a lack of trust, or some other reason; these “accountability” groups didn’t lead to the depth they were intended to create.  Given the proliferation of scandals and calls for more accountability, I’m starting to wonder if “accountability” is the problem.  Perhaps, we need a new word, concept, or idea.  Something’s not working.

The first time I encountered an “accountability group” I immediately thought of the self-criticism sessions in Maoist China’s reeducation camps.  Doesn’t an “accountability group” sound a little like Mao’s “responsibility fields”?  Who defines the standard to which pastors will be held to account?  Is it the United Methodist Party? Is it Chairman Jesus?  Is that the ideology of the group’s local commissar? Is it some general sense of right and wrong?

Perhaps I’m pro-choice and my colleagues are pro-life and their idea of accountability is different than mine?  The action of holding each other to “account” can become an exercise in wielding power, guilt, and shame if not done properly.  Again, I ask, is “accountability” the word we want to use?  (Perhaps “mutuality” or “mutual” are options.)  As currently construed, many “accountability groups” allow pastors to do for each other what they should never do with their own parishioners:  act in a mental health/therapeutic capacity for more than two sessions.

Early in my ministry I asked a colleague, “What’s an accountability group?”  I was told (in all seriousness) that it’s a time for pastors to, “sit around, pray together, to confess your porn addictions, talk about problems with your wife, and things like that.”  First of all, that sounded like a group therapy session.  Secondly, I wasn’t a porn addict and was recently divorced.  I was paying for therapy with counselor.  I didn’t want to sit around with people I knew professionally and talk about my personal problems.  I could sue my doctor if he broke my confidentiality but I didn’t know what I to do if the preachers down the street started talking to the Bishop about my divorce.  The whole idea sounded awkward, clichéd, and ripe for misunderstandings.

Most people get accountability right and a few get it horribly wrong.  When it goes off the rails, it’s spectacular; like the slow motion car wreck you can’t avoid watching. Frankly, I’m tired of all the rubbernecking and ready for the next great leap forward.  We need a new word, “mutuality” or “trust”, anything other than something that sounds like it emerged from the Cultural Revolution.

Granted, it’s hard to do when we’re fighting a Civil War.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

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I Am Sick of Talking About the Bread of Life

How does Jesus’ bread talk translate into something Christians can use?  It sounds good and it’s inspirational but will it connect with people in Galilee and on the margins of American society.  Those are the two questions I want to put to Jesus after four weeks of bread, bread, and more bread.

Yes, if given the opportunity, this is what I’d ask Jesus.

However, that’s not all I want to say.   I also want to tell him:

Enough with the bread already! I am sick of talking about how you are the bread of life.  Over and over, week in and week out, it’s the same message, repeated a hundred different ways.  We get it:  you are the bread of life, you come from heaven, you are not like Moses, you’re will not run out, you are everlasting, we will not go hungry, and have I left anything out?    I am on board.  How many times do we need to say the same thing?  Redundancy, Jesus,  is not a virtue.

Sometimes I feel like you believe we’re not only sinful but stupid.  We get it.  I understand that “the bread” will be on the final.  The metaphor makes sense to me.  I realize you’re not talking about cannibalism.  I understand the imagery and the relationship to Moses.  In fact, I picked that up about two weeks ago.  Honestly, I’m good. I’ve got it.  The congregation has got it down pat.  You don’t have to keep talking in these bread circles.  For the love of you, we can move on.  I want to know what I can offer besides making my congregation a) hungry b) wonder about my obsession with carbohydrates or c) puzzle over your self-association with bread or d) think John really wanted to be a baker.

Perhaps we try something new this week?  What about a nice parable or something involving water?  Maybe there’s a leper needing to be healed.  How about a blind, leprous, one legged, Phoenician prostitute needing water?  That’s right up your alley.  She’s about to be stoned by Pharisees.  And she’s fully stocked on bread.  This we can do.

I promise you Jesus, I’m not preaching one more week of this bread ridiculousness.  Joke’s over.

Okay, we’re done.  No more.  See you and the bread on Communion Sunday next month.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Why Anyone Still Went To or Hosted A Willow Creek Event This Week Is Beyond Me

Bill Hybels Demonstrating Leadership by Holding a Sharpie

One of my first appointments was as an associate pastor in a large congregation.  This was in Willow Creek’s heyday.  Many churches wanted to copy the “Willow Creek Model”.  Some members of my new congregation traveled to Willow Creek (just before I was appointed) and drank the Kool-Aid.  To be honest, I’d never heard of the place.  After seminary, I spent two years in the British Methodist Church.  The words “Hillsong” and “Willow Creek” meant nothing to me.

Evidently, my new church was on the Willow Creek train.  What did this mean?  I asked some questions and did a little reading.  I didn’t like what I found.  It was all a little Amway-esque.  Apparently, we needed to do what they were doing, lock stock and barrel.  From reading Bill Hybel’s books to wearing embroidered Polo shirts, our goal was to emulate his formula.  He was charismatic, kind of like a football coach who led seminars with moral overtones for IBM sales executives.* There was no theological depth.  That was in 2001.

Fast forward to today.  What a joke!  If could get those hours back I spent watching a sleaze lecture me about leadership, I’d be more than happy.  I knew it was weird and a little creepy then and now I know for sure.  I didn’t like having this formulaic contemporary suburban Christian cult shoved down my throat.  Now that I know Hybel’s definition of accountability is to sleep with whomever he wants, I’m sickened.

I applaud those churches and leaders who pulled out of this week’s Global Leadership Summit.  Going to Willow Creek for leadership lessons is akin to parents asking a brothel owner for advice on how to raise their teenage daughters.  It’s not cool.  The church doesn’t get a free pass simply because we preach Psalm 51 and say I’m sorry in just the right way.  Take a number, get in line, and look around:  no one’s buying Willow Creek’s version of the self-help Gospel.  There’s a footnote in American religious history waiting for you and your dear leader.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

* Of course, this was until someone came along saying, “You don’t want to be the next Willow Creek, you need be the new Saddleback.  Have you heard of the Purpose Driven Life?”  And so we bounced from fad to fad, seminar to seminar, and earned a few frequent flyer miles in the process. 

 

I Have Compassion Fatigue

I have compassion fatigue.  Unlike the sense of physical fatigue which haunts me from late afternoon until early evening each day, compassion fatigue can’t be cured by rest, sleep, a nap, or putting my feet up.  I think the first step toward addressing my compassion fatigue is admitting:  I have compassion fatigue.  Hey, it works for drugs and alcohol.  I have a problem.   (Does anyone know if there’s a 12-step program for compassion fatigue? ) 

I don’t think I’m alone.  A close examination of the map reveals a compassion fatigue deficit at frightening proportions.  We’re having trouble caring for everyone who is beaten, brutalized, and hurt by a world that is just plain mean.

It is hard to be a Christian without some measure of compassion fatigue.  We should be physically and emotionally exhausted.  If church is easy, reflexive, and simplistic without a hint of exasperation then something is wrong.  Then we’re doing church the wrong way in the wrong place.

One noted psychologist defined compassion fatigue as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.”  (Doesn’t that sound like a typical Sunday at church?)  The psychologist, Dr. Charles Figley, went on to add that symptoms may include behavioral changes, exhaustion, cardiac issues, numbness, depression, becoming easily startled, and a decreased sense of purpose.  (Check, check, check, and check.)

The phrase may be new (first appearing in print in the early 1990’s) but the idea of compassion fatigue is as old as empathy and compassion itself.  Immanuel Kant argued otherwise.  He though empathy impedes morality.  Empathy wasn’t really required for someone to be a moral person.  We know what happens when morality is detached from politics and society.  Time and time again, Kant was proven wrong.  Whether in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Milosevic’s Serbia, morality divorced from empathy led to human suffering on an epic scale.  To see and respond to such needs on a regular basis for seventy years has been exhausting, especially for mainline Protestants.  People who help others or care about the world beyond themselves become worn out and tired.  Call it what you will, it’s a reality of the human condition.  Yet, despite our compassion fatigue, the world is a better place.

Compassion fatigue is an underlying premise in liberation theologies.  If we’re unable to empathize and feel suffering on some level, how are we able to truly help the marginalized, the needy, the poor, the forest fire victim, the hurricane victim, the flood victim, the everything coming in from around the world victim, answer emails from advocacy groups, call your senator about that “big” issue, and so on?  Welcome back to compassion fatigue.  What do we do?  How do we go on vacation from the need to be compassionate people?

We can’t pause, stop, or break from the need to be compassionate.  That’s not the way Christianity works.  It is possible, within the larger community of believers, to share our responsibilities with others.  We cannot and shouldn’t function alone.  Phone trees, email lists, and conversations work.  Ask for help when needs arise.  Are we raising money, making kits, or finding shelter for the night?  We must rely upon the body of Christ to meet the needs of the body of Christ.

The antidote to compassion fatigue isn’t less compassion.  It might not even be rest.  The world isn’t getting safer, saner, or less dangerous.  The answer, I believe, is living as Paul describes in Ephesians 4.  “Be angry without out sinning.  Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”  Anger is exhausting, one might even say fatiguing.  Anger saps our ability to be compassionate.  The world wants to make us angry at every turn.  Hence Paul’s reply, “Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.”  Let’s not be part of the problem.

Paul has two grand ideas:  don’t do anything that might hinder your ability to be compassionate or harm the community’s ability to assist you in being compassionate.  In Ephesians 4:28, Paul says, “Thieves should no longer steal.  Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.”

Theft is a crime.  It takes away our sense of safety, sanctity, and security.  A burglar is thief; so are storms, hurricanes, fires, and floods.  All invade, destroy, and take what isn’t theirs to take.  Each leaves persons in need of compassion.  Paul says we should all be in a place to give compassion, in a community.  Our compassion does no good if we’ve excluded ourselves from the community.  How does he phrase it at the end, “with whoever is in need”?  That’s compassion in community, moving beyond fatigue.

He makes the same point again, this time, with language.  “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth.  Only say what is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”  Language can be destructive or compassionate.  Will our words be for the benefit of the community in times of need?

Will we use our gifts and graces for the whole of the community, that is, will we ask for help when we are overwhelmed?  Will we speak in ways that build each other up?  Do we have the courage to say, “I’ve got compassion fatigue and need your help to keep going?”

I hope so.  None of us can do any of this thing we call church alone.  We need each other.  That’s the only real answer I have.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

The Nuremberg Defense

The Nuremberg Defense still works, at least as filtered through a uniquely
United Methodist interpretation of Romans 13 via U. S. Attorney General
Jeff Sessions’s United Methodist Christian Education. If the German
Lutherans in the dock at Nuremberg had been Methodists from Alabama, who
knows who’d have lived well into the 20th century? If we hadn’t been so
busy trying to keep races from mixing on our own continent, we could have
evangelized an Aryan Europe, eager for our arms-length approach to
Christian responsibility and Christ-like living.

You know what I’m talking about, right? I shouldn’t make that
assumption. The Nuremberg defense was the strategy used by senior officers
of the German High Command when tried by the Allies for war crimes after
World War II. (The trial took place in the city of Nuremberg, Germany;
hence its name). After WWII, when confronted with the horrors of the
Holocaust and ethnic cleansing in Russia, many officers claimed they were
simply “following orders.” These were not personal decisions, which they
may have objected to, but political decisions required by the necessity of
war, went their defense. Another former Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, made the
same defense when tried by the Israeli government in 1961. Lt. William
Calley and those responsible the My Lai massacre in Vietnam echoed the
same defense at their trials in 1971. What does this mean? If you want
morality, don’t look to war. War, as Gen. William Sherman said, is Hell.

Oh, be positive, Richard, it’s a lovely day, you might say. Yet if you’re
still in a detention center and your family is in Honduras and you’re
still in Texas, I’m guessing you’re in a form of hell. But if it’s great
for us, what does it matter for anyone else? That’s how many people say
they feel. Yet if the church is going to help anyone, even in this time of
denominational transition, our ability to remain empathetic must be
strong.

In this moment, we’re in a struggle for the survival of the democratic
republic. Those who are waging war on civil liberties, human rights,
freedom of the press, and the religious freedoms of those who aren’t
evangelical Protestants, could care less our impassioned letters to the
editor, daily bouts of incredulity, or attempts to censure members of our
own denomination. When powerful people such as an Attorney General who is
a lay leader in our denomination confidently and proudly relies on
versions of the Nuremberg defense, we’re done. When such a powerful person
can do so with full knowledge that United Methodist bureaucratic timidity
won’t challenge them (“our hands are tied by the Discipline and we refuse
to untie them despite the human suffering we pretend to acknowledge and
loudly bemoan”) we’re done. We’re finished not because of theological
divisions over homosexuality. No, this is far worse. We’ve become
short-attention-span activists; we say care, but after one letter telling
us no, we’re ready to let the institutional word be the last word.

Change was never going to come by compiling signatures. With human beings
still in cages, do we move on to our less “controversial” arguments? Hell,
no! We do both. How do we look at one letter from one district
superintendent claiming to settle the erosion of basic human rights in
America and United Methodism’s complicity in such an evil? I can’t salute
like a good soldier, say “yes, sir” and carry on. We’re well past that
now.

As for the Romans 13 justification, I don’t owe Caesar anything. I don’t
think Paul meant for us or anyone else to transpose the phrase governing
authorities (as he knew them), meaning the Imperial Roman Administration
to 21st century America. I don’t want to be Caesar’s pet. Even Caesar is
subject to God. Our Caesar and those who administer his justice seem to
forget, this God isn’t a reflection of their own vengeful natures, but the
God of the Sermon on Mount. I owe that God everything.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Against the Grain (John 6:35)

I am grateful that Jesus made carbohydrates, particularly bread, central to Christian theology.  I really do like, appreciate, and enjoy bread and food made with bread. In fact, when Jesus says in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life”, I have to admit: that’s not always what I hear.  I sometimes understand him to say, “I am the Big Mac of life” or “I am the Domino’s of life” or “I am the Subway Foot long of life” or even “I am the Arby’s and We Have the Meats of Life”.  Sometimes, things with no relation to bread are the bread of life.  Did not Jesus once say, “I am the sweet tea of life?”

Each of these items, in their own unique manner, feeds my soul in a way reminiscent of how Jesus described his identity as the “bread of life”.  Yet unlike Jesus, no matter how many roast beef sandwiches I eat or pizzas I devour, I will, once again be hungry. Like clockwork, my stomach will growl and I will want to eat again. Jesus talks about bread in different terms.  Jesus isn’t like Chinese food; thirty minutes, one good burp, and thrill is gone. No, when Jesus talks about bread and life he means a kind of soul nourishment which isn’t measured or regulated by the cycles of the human body.

He’s moved into the realm of the Energizer bunny, that part of us that keeps going and going despite the food we eat (which will leave us hungry), the house we live in (which will crumble), or the people who surround us (who will die, like us).  Jesus and the bread he’s talking about are part of a much bigger picture.  There are needs at the level of the human soul which are bigger than the Grandest Canyon or the widest ocean.  Jesus is saying, don’t let the size and spectacle of the world cause you to ignore the hunger inside your soul.

Why the “bread of life”?  Bread seems so basic.  Jesus could have used any number of words or phrases to describe himself, right?  Jesus could say, “I am the Messiah” or “I am the Son of God” or “I am the Holy One Come to Bring Life” or “I am Mary’s Boy” or “I am the one who walks on Water”.  The list could go on and on.  All of those are accurate.  Even though I made them up, they’re reasonable enough to believe that someone (even Jesus) might have described Jesus in such a manner.  They even sound less opaque than “the bread of life”.  They don’t require a metaphysical explanation and a deep dive into spiritual metaphors.  Why not choose something simpler?  I don’t know.  I wasn’t there.

However, I believe bread makes more sense than we realize.  It’s less of riddle than we think it is.  Bread makes the world go around.  Before we had money, before civilizations had cash to run their economies, what made the world tick; bread.  The cultivation of grain is the defining feature in western civilization.  At one point, we were all tribal nomads, wondering around the plains.  One day, that all changed.  We decided to let our animals graze in one place and grow wheat.  Cultivating wheat and growing grain changed the history of the world.  We are who we are because of bread.  We’ve been who we are, for most of recorded human history because of our relationship to bread.  Grain allowed civilizations to thrive.  Bread became one of the keys to life, wealth, commerce, and power.  With the grain, you could get livestock, slaves, and land.

Jesus, on the other hand, speaks against the grain.  He doesn’t talk about grain or its byproduct (bread) in a tangible way reflecting cultivation or accumulation.  For Jesus bread or grain, as life giving as it is, can’t be measured on scale, then bagged, or sold to the highest bidder.  Wheat can’t be planted in the ground, grain can’t be cultivated, nor can bread be baked.  Jesus is talking about something everyone knows, something their parents knew, their grandparents knew and asking them to look inward.  Jesus is going against the dominant culture of wheat, grain, and bread.  What feeds us keeps us captive.  What feeds us leaves us hungry.  What feeds us keeps us apart.  What feeds us is crumbling from the inside out.

We need new food, different grain, and better bread.  It’s not Moses’ recycled bread, rediscovered ways to slice old bread, but a renewal of the spirit that Jesus brings to those who decide to go with him as he runs against the grain.  It’s a rejection of scarcity economics and an embrace of abundant living.  That’s what John means by the bread of life.   It’s kind of scary to walk away from a table full of bread and toward a guy who uses bread as a metaphor.  That is against the grain thinking.  It’s also the most basic act of counter-cultural discipleship Jesus asks of any disciple.  Step from what you know, away from your comfort zone, into an area where faith is your only frame of reference.

Because you’ve been so nice, I’m going to let you in on a secret about the bread of life.  It’s not bread at all.  Jesus is a way of life; life lived on terms of abundance, grace, joy, and love.   Please, don’t mess it up.  For bread’s sake.

Richard Lowell Bryant

You’re Probably Missing the Fascism

The story of David, Uriah’s wife, Uriah, and Nathan carry over into a second week.  How could it not?  Conspiracies, cover-ups, and human misery on this sort of epic scale are rarely confined to minutes or hours.  These are grand events that unfold over days and weeks.  In turn, they impact the participant’s lives over months and years.  Then we, the well-intentioned purveyors of the word believe that we’ll do justice to the multiple layers of meaning found in these texts over a couple of 20-25 minute rap sessions  Who are we kidding? This assumes we have the intestinal fortitude to talk about something guaranteed to make most of the people in church more than squeamish and a little bit angry.

It’s hard to read 2 Samuel.  In one way, it’s like stepping into the third season of Game of Throne having never watched the first two seasons.  You know none of the characters, themes, plot lines, or ideas.  There are just lots of self-indulgent beautiful people sleeping with each other while other people fight needless wars of aggression against an evil it’s difficult to name.  Why should we care about people so distant and foreign to our own experience?  We care because there’s another writer who is also trying to tell David’s story.  Unlike Game of Thrones, this writer (called the Chronicler) is like turning on Fox News and hearing a sanitized version of David’s reign without any of dirty laundry and political baggage David carries.  As painful as may be to get the truth about David, at least Samuel tells the truth.  The Chronicler can’t find Uriah or Bathsheba anywhere.

Whenever I read the history of King David’s reign in 2nd Samuel, particularly those sections the Chronicler chose not to include, it occurs to me that the propaganda tools of “fake news” to attack the truth are at least as old the Bible.  In choosing to tell the story of King David’s rule, the writer of 1st and 2nd Chronicles decided to ignore the most important event in David’s time as King; a moment which would define the course of which followed.  Whether the Chronicler regarded the affair between David and Bathsheba as fake news or a personal indiscretion between the king and his girlfriend, we’ll never know.  We do know this affair led to the death of honorable, patriotic Israelite soldiers and changed the course of Israel’s destiny.  We know that nothing is personal able to remain privileged on the royal altar of narcissism when you’re the king.

Eventually, the world will know that Bathsheba is pregnant.  Bathsheba’s pregnancy, Mr. King David, is not a crime.  What it took to get there and what it means for the kingdom to live with the results of your cowardice and deception; Mr. King David, that places Israel in danger. Israel is in grave danger.

We are in danger.  I think that’s why these passages from 2nd Samuel make me so uncomfortable.  David’s illicit sex and cowardice are gross.  He’s a Harvey Weinstein-like predator.  However, because of his position, his personal faults lead to bad decisions which put the entire nation in danger.  The cheap sex and political cowardice are  essential ingredients to the political and religious fascism David seems intent on creating.

If the worst sin we see when talking about this passage is a man committing adultery, not solider being sent to die by his own king at the hand of his own men, then you’re missing the fascism.

If the worst sin we see is a king who loved God and was in need of forgiveness after adultery, not the woman who was probably raped in a non consensual sexual encounter, then you’re missing the fascism.

If the worst sin we see is a king who couldn’t momentarily see God’s plan for his life, not the abject brutality of his own actions, then you’re you missing the fascism.

Now  you try:

If the worst sin you see is ____________ , not the _____________ then you’re probably missing the fascism.

Richard Lowell Bryant