The South Nazareth Wrong Side of the Capernaum Docks My Momma and Daddy Hate Me Because of this Long Haired Jesus Dude Galilean Blues

Kicked out of Galilee,
Want to be free,
Living in the moment,
Running from the government,
Going to see Jesus,
Can he please us,
Watch out now,
Not Thou shall,
Romans surrounding,
Taxes are mounting,
The message is clear,
Power better fear,
People going to hate,
When they relate,
Not to the prelate,
But to the one we call Son,
Needs no shekels to get it done,
Watch out now,
Not thou shall,
Mother and Daughter turn aside,
While in-laws fight like one has died,
Jesus at the market,
Sword in hand
Bringing some peace,
To a violent land,
Words from the Pharisees,
Don’t go to the Dead Sea,
Watch out now,
Not thou shall,
Man in the camel hair vest,
Lost his head like all the rest,
Where to row on dry land,
Contradictions always stand.

–Richard Bryant

I Shall Not Want (Psalm 23:1)

What makes you happy?  What brings you a sense of true joy and contentment?  For many of us it may be opening our eyes, going outside, taking a deep breath, and looking around on a day like today.  Others locate their happiness in relationships; perhaps among their family and friends.  Those are the places we are supposed to find happiness.  When push comes to shove, at the end of the day, when nothing else is available and resources are scant; happiness is available to us in immeasurable units.  In the back of our minds, that’s we’ve be taught and led to believe.  I’m not sure we believe it.  Most of us, on our best days, despite countless protestations to the contrary, live as if happiness is measured in things you can actually count.   We would deny it until we’re blue in the face but our actions run to the contrary.  Despite all we’ve read about simplicity and materialism, we still believe that “stuff” makes us happy.

I need to tell you the truth here.  I’m pointing the finger at myself.  I’m a stuff junkie.  I’ve tried to break the habit on numerous occasions but it’s hard.  The stuff I can’t get rid of isn’t the good stuff; the things with emotional resonance and sentimental value.  It’s the clutter, albeit clutter that I can justify in one way or another.  For example, fancy writing instruments.  How many pens does a grown man need?  The thing is, each one has a story.  I know where I bought the pen.   I even know how long I had to save to buy several of them.  There are a couple of them I wouldn’t dare write with.  I just look at them and thank God I get to be the custodian of something attached to American history.  Despite the value of these pens, I’ll be the first to admit, they’re stuff, clutter moved from multiple houses and across the ocean.  My happiness, though it is, shouldn’t be tied in up in pieces of plastic, I never use.  There are things like my pens in all of our lives.  They appear to make me happy.  But my happiness, as it has been reshaped by the world (and we’ve allowed this to happen), is both flawed and false.  In truth, none of us knows what makes us happy.  We have so many things competing for the limited amount of time we’ve reserved for joy in our lives.  Maybe it’s time we open up more space on our schedules for happiness.

When you step back from the sheep and shepherd metaphor, the 23rd Psalm opens with a powerful statement about the relationship between happiness, need, and want.  It’s hard for modern readers to grasp the work of shepherds or the difficulties of raising sheep.  I lived in Irish sheep country for two years.  The shepherds I knew were unsentimental, hard scrabble men with little time for the romanticized version of their work presented in scripture.  Like their 1st century peers, modern day shepherds are invested in the survival and protection of their flocks.

For the shepherd in the 23rd Psalm, handling sheep is more than a job.  I don’t feel comfortable saying God’s calling is to be a shepherd.  Calling a God a shepherd is a way, for us as humans, to try to grasp and understand, in a limited way, what God does and who God is.  When you start talking about whom God is and God’s job description, that’s when I wait for the Indiana Jones moment, for the floor to drop out from under me and boulder to start rolling from the ceiling.  That’s very dicey ground on which to stand.   God is too big for me to put into one vocational box.

So we say that God’s sort of a shepherd.  It’s like saying, “the best thing we can come up with in order to describe how God looks after the universe is to compare it to the work of a shepherd.”  God isn’t a shepherd but the best way we know how to describe it is to use that word.  If we talk about it this way, we may see something we’ve missed.

The second half of the first verse contains four words:  “I shall not want”.  When it comes to any understanding of happiness, generosity, joy or contentment; those four words answer questions and statements we are afraid to ask.

Why am I unhappy? I shall not want.

What happens when Mama gets sick? I shall not want.

What happens when there is no money for the light bill?  I shall not want.

When I cannot see God? I shall not want.

I am afraid.  I shall not want.

I will never have enough. I shall not want.

Despite the presence of death, I shall not want.

Those words are both a promise and an ultimatum.  The world will come this far and no further.  We do not want what the world has to offer.

Here’s what those four words ultimately mean:  we shall not want for life in the face of death.  So let me give you a huge spoiler alert:  the tomb will be empty.  Death loses!

This is the difference that Christ makes.  When we place Christ at the center, want (or happiness) is never about what we possess.  It’s the opposite.  It’s about letting go of everything.  Christ, though he was God, did not make a big deal about the fact he was God, divested himself of all power, so that now he’s basically a slave in a human body, and that slave in a human body died on a Roman cross so we might be free from what the world calls want.

That’s when all the pieces fall into place and this single verse makes more sense than all the imagery about green pastures and still waters combined.  Christ changes our perspective on happiness and want.  Why shall we not want?  Because we know who’s let everything go and why he did it.

One of the questions Jesus was regularly asked (and the disciples after the resurrection) by the religious authorities was “by whose power do you do these things?”  Whether it was a healing, preaching, or teaching, they wanted to know who gave them the authority to stand, in public, in God’s name, and act accordingly.  That’s just another way of asking, “How are you so happy and content?”  “How do you have the nerve to be so without want?”  “What do you know that we don’t?

We know this:  whether we’re asking ourselves in the bathroom mirror or someone poses it to us we have the opportunity to proclaim the resurrection in four simple words:  I shall not want.

It’s OK To Be Afraid

I don’t know what will make me feel better, safe, or more secure.  I do know that hashtags encouraging me to pray for London, watching candlelight vigils, or holding my hands in the shape of heart do nothing for my soul.  These actions leave me cold and numb.  The global Kum-Ba-Yah crowd has again assembled to tell the world how we are not afraid of bearded, knife, wielding, erratically driving men knocking us off in groups of 10 or less in the name of Allah.   It’s my hunch, these services and songs leave the terrorists (would be and active) pleased with what they see.  Other than statements of non-fear is anyone on the same page at these gatherings?

We must be a little afraid, or we wouldn’t be pretending so hard that we’re not afraid.  Resistance to terror has now become daily living.  We stand up to terror by being afraid and still going to work, crossing, bridges, and going shopping; at least that’s what we’re told.  Let me tell you a secret, even on a good day, when I know a terrorist isn’t trying to run me over, I’m a little scared to cross the street.  I know people drive like drunken idiots.  I’m scared and afraid, just a little, on the sunniest and happiest days of my life.  When I lived in Northern Ireland, I lived with a little bit of fear that I might be blown up because some radical faction of the IRA who never signed on to the peace process had a problem with the police and I would die at the wrong place at the wrong time.  This fear stayed with me when I went to the grocery store, to the university, and to pick up our children from school.  I lived with fear and my “normal” life.  The fear wasn’t in my head.  The bomb threats were real.  The car searches occurred.  My life didn’t stop.  However, the fear was always present.

So I’m kind of frustrated when civic leaders and religious figures  tell us it’s not OK to be afraid.  We will not cower to the terrorists.  No, I don’t believe in cowering but I do believe in admitting when I’m scared.  Scripture is full of examples, in fact, of people doing both.  Asking me to deny my fear in the face of tragedy is telling me to deny my humanity.  If I deny my humanity, the terrorists win automatically.  I think fear is an appropriate response to people being killed in the street.  If we weren’t a little scared, we’d all be insane.  We need appropriate amounts of fear to survive.  Fear shouldn’t control our lives but we can’t ignore the realities we face by pretending danger doesn’t exist.

A Totally True Story

Whenever I go home, I make a trip to Wal-Mart.  My wife and I take the whole family shopping.  I don’t know what it is.  What is the magnetic hold to be with other fat people, rednecks, and buy cheap stuff from China?  It beats me but it’s as tangible as gravity itself.  Maybe it’s because I’ve come to the big city.  When I pull into the Wal-Mart parking lot and cruise around the trucks and other trucks, and people with questionable handicap parking permits, I’m impressed with what I see.  Every time is like the first time.

Even the garbage is new.  We don’t have this garbage on Ocracoke. The empty Bojangles cups and McDonald’s wrappers blowing across the parking lot tell a story.  I say, “Look y’all, people eat here!”  If we follow this trail of rubbish inside maybe we can find the holy grail of diabetes and heart disease.  Of course, before any of this happens, someone will need to hop out of the car and move the shopping cart from the parking space I want to occupy and return it to the cart return.

And they still have these red boxes that will give you a DVD.  You have to give the red box money but I’m amazed with the technology that allows me to place money into a machine and receive a movie.  I know what you’re thinking.  Yes, I’ve got a thing in my hand; it’s actually in my pocket.  This thing can download from the internet any movie ever made.  I don’t need a DVD player, disc, computer, or television.  All I need is the thing in my pocket. I know this sounds impressive.  But you don’t get it; it will give me a real DVD for a dollar.  The red box is shiny and adorned with pretty pictures.  The thing in my pocket is black and boring.  I think the battery may be dead.

We can never stay together in Wal-Mart.  Once we cross the threshold, our family divides in five directions.  Before I can ask, “Where are we going and when are we going to meet?” I’m left holding a shopping cart with five tubes of toothpaste and some generic Miracle Gro.  I don’t know who put them in the cart or where my wife is.  Suddenly, I am alone and afraid.  Do I look vulnerable?  Kidnappers look for befuddled people without their caregivers at Wal-Mart. I remember this from an after school television special.  Perhaps I should find a security guard and tell him I’m 43 years old, I’ve lost my wife, and I’m certain someone might kidnap me.

I’ve been afraid of being kidnapped since I was 10.  Although I’ve never known a kidnap victim or come close to being kidnapped, I’ve watched a lot of television.  I knew all it would take would be turning my back from my parents in the grocery story or walking toward the antacids (unannounced) while my wife went to buy school supplies.  The next thing you know, I’d be tied up in the back of a white van and my face would be on milk cartons.

I had a couple of options.  I could start wandering  around with my toothpaste and generic Miracle Gro.  I could have someone paged.  If I saw a security guard, I might ask if he’s seen my wife.  The third option was the riskiest.  Depending on how I sounded when phrasing the question, I might sound crazy.  After a few minutes talking to myself in the cosmetics aisle, where I accented each of the five words a little differently, “Have you seen my wife?” I decided to walk toward the grocery section.

The journey from cosmetics to groceries took me through men’s clothing.  In the virtual center of the store were t-shirts with a variety of symbols, logos, and stories.  One garment caught my attention and momentarily assuaged my fear.  It was a grey men’s t-shirt with these words emblazoned across the front in red, “I Don’t Give A”.  Below the writing was as drawing of a rodent and donkey.  Secretly, I liked the shirt.  I felt guilty.  But my problem is I give a rodent’s donkey about too many things.  I could never pull it off with any degree of legitimacy.

I had bigger fish to fry.  I was still abandoned with my five tubes of toothpaste and generic Miracle Gro in the weird shirt section of Wal-Mart.  This was probably a known kidnapper hangout.  I needed to be on the move.

The food section in Wal-Mart isn’t like a traditional grocery store; it’s better.  For one, the wider aisles are arranged to enable lost people to find their wives more efficiently than they can at Food Lion or Harris Teeter.  As such, you can move quickly and cover more ground or stay in one place (the deli to sample meat) knowing you’ll cut her off at the pass on the way to the check out line.

Fifteen minutes later, on my fifth sample of honey baked ham, I heard a voice from behind me, “Where have you been?”

“Right here,” I said, “holding on to the five tubes of tooth paste and generic Miracle Gro”.

“You know we’re putting that DVD back, don’t you?”

I bet the kidnapper would have let me keep it.

Fight the Power (Re-Reading Psalm 23)

How would you describe your relationship with God?  In what terms would you characterize how you and God exist together, with each other, in the world?  I’m not a betting man but if I were, I’d bet it wouldn’t be this:  “you know I’m like a dirty, filthy, wool bearing bovine and God’s like the hand to mouth living shepherd who beats my dumb ass into submission with a stick when I stray off course.”  I may be wrong, but I’m guessing I’m not wrong.  Despite this obvious and ongoing incongruity, the imagery surrounding the 23rd Psalm remains popular with countless Christians, devotional writers, and others who know nothing about sheep.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time around sheep would never talk about their relationship with God in terms of a sheep to shepherd.  As agricultural metaphors go, it’s perfectly designed for our sanitized culture.  We view nature and food at a distance, through the lenses of shrink wrap packaging and cute memes shared on Facebook.  The reality of feces, mud, and the sheer brutality of raising sheep on the steep hills of Wales, Ireland, Scotland or Palestine is lost on modern day readers.  When most Christians encounter the 23rd Psalm, we have it presented to us as kind of non-violent bedtime story that Jesus might have read to Mahatma Gandhi.

So what is this Psalm about?  Like any good passage, I see something new each time I encounter the Psalmist’s words.  One of my greatest fears in reading the Bible is to encounter reruns.  Reruns are fine for television, not for the Bible.  I like to read a passage I’ve read hundreds of times, know by heart, and still find something I’ve missed.  What are we missing from this Psalm we think we know like the back of our hand?   There are things we are missing in parts of the Bible we have grown too comfortable quoting, hearing, and repeating to others.

Psalm 23 is about power.  Who has the power and who is powerless?  How is power used?  What does it mean to be weak?  In a relationship of complete submission, where power is total, is there any such thing as freedom?

Power, as the Psalm indicates, is both creative and destructive.  The corrective rod and protective staff are ever before the sheep.  Continual affirmation while also maintaining the imminent possibility of destruction dominates the collective life of the sheep community.  This transcendental tension mirrors the individual engagement between sheep.  In our pastures, sheep do not exist in splendid isolation, unaware of the world or other sheep.  We create our own power relationships between each other, despite the shepherd’s powerful promise of provision.  Where all submit to the shepherd, some now submit to each other.

The sheep are allowed, through the shepherd’s power, to sleep, drink, live, eat, and bathe.  Power, as both Saint Paul and Michel Foucault noted, is the key to freedom.  If I am allowed to sleep, drink, live, and eat, what freedom do I hold?  The freedom I lack is defined by the power I do not possess.  I find no humanity, no freedom, and little hope in the words of the 23rd Psalm.  Yes, you may live in the Lord’s house, but at what cost?

The Christ-event is defined by weakness and powerlessness.  The 23rd Psalm stands in stark opposition to the events of Good Friday.  On that day, Psalm 23 wasn’t a feel good prayer to boost Jesus’ dying spirit as he hung from a Roman cross.  (Remember, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross.) Psalm 23 contained empty phrases which reflected the all too human preoccupation with power and control.  The Psalmist told a story of a God who should be not a God who is.  God wasn’t a shepherd catering a meal by a river.  Jesus wasn’t willing to pay Psalm 23’s price.  He was dying a miserable death and not because the Shepherd demanded it.  He was on the cross because the sheep insisted he be killed.  Freedom, when it came, was bloody and it hurt.  Yet, without the loss of Psalm 23’s idea of control, salvation still would be given out at feeding time, when the shepherd felt like it, because he has the power.

It’s time to re-read power, whether divine or secular.  Jesus did.

 

The Decolonization of Sin (John 9:1-41)

Do you see the blind guy?  He wasn’t always blind.  Can you imagine every conversation, for the rest of your life, being preceded by questions and statements of that nature?  And those questions must be accompanied by the inevitable explanations.   Here’s how the story of my disability transpired, he would say.  There was probably a long version and a short version.  What you heard might have depended on the day of the week or hour of the night.  Who knows?

It’s hard to tell the story of someone with a disability of without it being exploitative.  Because the blind, deaf, or challenged person isn’t the one who is usually telling the story; a person with a perspective not available to the central character retells the events, actions, and emotions.  Everything is going to sound and look different when a person without a disability tells their story.  A blind or deaf person, even someone who regains those abilities after years of darkness or silence, will have a completely different sensory experience.

My question is, when we read John 9, whose story are we reading?  Are we reading the one we impose from above or one that is told from within?  There is the story of the man who is healed, the story Jesus wants confirmed, the account of the parents of the blind man, and the Pharisees version of events.  In the melee that follows, does the blind man’s story matter to anyone, or is he a pawn in the larger religious battle between Jesus and the Pharisees?  What is the political and social value of a miracle when your culture’s social blindness is more important than your literal blindness?

The disciples believe, like some people in our churches today, than sin is passed from parents to children.  If a child is troubled, it’s because mother and father were cursed.  Of course we don’t come right out and say it in so many words, but we do say it, in fewer words and backwards glances.   Will gossip confirm what theology is unwilling to say, is this man blind because his mother or father were low down, rotten, dirty, no good sinners?  Look at the theology, the religion underlying the disciple’s question:  those children who are pure, healthy, and alive must come from parents who are free from sin and spiritual impurity.  That’s the first exploitative implication in this passage.  If we are blessed, it must be because God made us so.  If we let this belief become the dominant view in our religious life, anyone who is weak, sick, or disabled is viewed as sinful, less than, and inferior before God and man.   For Jesus to be zeroing in, time after time, on the weak, sick, and disabled, this must be a tremendous problem in 1st century Palestine.  What is the problem:  telling God’s story from your one sided; I’m loved because I’m blessed perspective.  The problem is denying that God blesses the weak, sick, and the disabled.  The problem is identifying sin as something we pass on through our chromosomes.  The problem is seeing God’s love as something which gives people power over another.

Where is he from?  The Pharisees are big on “origins”.  They claim to be Moses’ disciples.  Incredulous that a sinner from unknown origins could perform such a miracle, they lose their tempers with the man’s parents.  “We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”  Power needs a location.  The British needed to tell the Indians and Africans, the Queen resided in London.  From there, armies of white men would come to rule the subcontinent.  From a place, even a faraway place, power could rule and subjugate many people.

Locations matter to those using exploitative stories.  If you’re going to build your power around a narrative of lies, it must be centered on a locus of control.  The Pharisees controlled Moses’ history, the texts, the story, the places of worship, and all the elements of Israel’s past.  They made myth into reality.  Like Nelson at Trafalgar or David and Goliath, the story of empire became intertwined with the one approved version of God’s interaction with human history.  God had a definitive location, on Sinai, with Moses.  The Pharisees had a roster of all in attendance.  Jesus wasn’t there.

Jesus decolonized the very idea of sin.  He broke the imperial, exploitative hold the religious authorities maintained on God’s location.  If no one knew where God was from, no one group of people could make moral claims on God’s behalf.  God was no longer a distant colonial power making decisions for subjugated peoples through religious administrators.  Now, God was from everywhere, lived in each village, spoke all the languages, and addressed the spiritual and physical needs of all people.  Contrary to prior religious practice, Jesus gave gifts (i.e. sight) instead requiring gifts be offered to the distant God (i.e. religious/spiritual taxation).  Jesus’ actions subverted the colonial model at every turn.  As the psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is obviously, a program of complete disorder.”  Jesus brought complete disorder to the established colonial order centered in Rome and the religious (colonial) order based at the Temple.

“You were born completely in sin,” the Pharisees say.  No matter what he’s done or how he’s lived his life, his lack of sight has marked him as being “completely in sin”.  Even as the blind man is healed, filled with the ability to see, distinguish colors, and perceive depth, the old presuppositions will not let go.  We will not grant you independence or cede to you the possibility of God’s love because our stereotypes about sin are more powerful than the realities we are witnessing.  If we, as the Pharisees, admit we are wrong, our power over the lives of others vanishes.  This is not about being wrong.  It’s about losing control.   We won’t know who we are if we can’t name and shame sinners.  Labeling people as wrong, especially across generations, has become our stock and trade.  How will we survive without the power to condemn others in the name of God?

Blindness is a two way street.  Blindness is both physical and spiritual.  One of the Pharisees asks the best question of all, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”  Surely, we’re not missing the point, are we?  Surely, we’re not caught up in judicial council decisions, are we?  Surely we’re not rearranging Methodism’s deck chairs while the planet Earth self destructs, are we?  Not us.   We’re way too self-aware to fall into this trap.

Ain’t No Big Thing (A Poem)

Ain’t no big thing,
To you maybe,
But to me,
This is huge,
The minimization of my emotionalization,
Leaves me speechless,
Emotionally too old,
For the hackneyed moment
Which has come to pass,
Ignoring the smells,
Genies flee from
Whitecaps crashed,
Words cannot go back,
Where thought lies its last.

–Richard Bryant