Food for Thought-Jeremiah’s Call and the Jersey Boys

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Whenever I go home, I will invariably hear someone say, “I know you” or “I’ve known you since you were (fill in the blank)”.  It never fails.  To truly be known, it takes two people, doesn’t it?  Someone beyond you has to identify something about you which defines you to the wider community.  This is how we are known; to our friends, families, and the world.  This is how our lives are lived and our stories get told.

When I was growing up in Randolph County, North Carolina, I spent a great deal of time at my grandmother’s house.  With both my mother and father at work, she was essentially, my third parent.  I went there after school and on holidays.  I was there probably six days a week.  For most of that time, my grandmother was a seamstress.  She made her living hemming pants and altering clothes for people who traveled to her tiny house.  Many of these people brought their ill fitting clothes from one or two of the neighboring counties.  Women in late model Mercury sedans were always knocking on that little screen door, asking to come in, and drop off their clothes.  Everyone knew my Grandma and for some reason, many of them seemed to know me.

“I know you,” they’d say.  I did not know them.  “I’d know you anywhere,” the person would go on.  I didn’t know them from Adam’s house cat.  “I know that face, you’re Bettie’s little boy, that’s little Bettie.”  But I wasn’t little Bettie.  I’m little Richard.  People knew me because of my striking resemblance to my mother.  Though, this doesn’t happen much anymore.  She’s not bald and has yet to adopt the bow tie.

The relationships created by being truly known form and tell the stories of our lives.

“I know you when you made a makeshift parachute out of garbage bags and tried to jump off the back of the house,” someone might say to me.  They know me for the stupid.

“I know you when you slipped and fell on the ice in Russia and someone stepped on your face,” another might add.  They know me for the what have I done and where in the world am I moments.

To be known is to be known for the good, bad, and all the instances in between.

This is where Jeremiah begins his story.  In fact, for Jeremiah, it begins before the beginning.  I bet you didn’t know that was possible; to begin a story before the beginning.  From creation onward, God is always stepping in, while events are already in progress.  The Hebrew Bible is clear:  God moves onto the scene as events are already unfolding.  Just as the people around us, like those women who climbed those back steps into my grandmother’s kitchen to drop off their sewing and recognized me, people we have never seen or heard seem to know us and all about our lives.  God says to Jeremiah, you, and to me.  I know you and I knew you long before you were born.  This idea, the story, this notion called YOU began long before you knew who you were.  How? Why? Because others see the best in us before we see it in ourselves.  God brings out the best in people.  If we’re not seeing the best, then perhaps, we’re not listening to God say, “I know you when.”  It’s much easier to listen to ourselves say, “I remember me when I was.”  That leads to personal and spiritual messes.

Here’s how that kind of thing can happen:  Take “The Jersey Boys”.  Do you know the film or musical about the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons?  I’m sure many of you have seen one or the other.  If not, let me recommended it.  In the movie, Frankie Valli, Tommy Devito, Nick Massi, and Bob Gaudio are reminding each other, “We are Jersey Boys”.  No matter how famous, how many number one songs, or appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, it was important to remember who they were, where they came from and be surrounded by people who knew them when they were just kids singing on a street corner.  When those connections fell apart, the Four Seasons fell apart.

God is pulling Jeremiah out of some comfortable surroundings and placing him in the middle of an uncomfortable prophetic venture.  Jeremiah was known for being the son of a well-known priest, up and coming Levite himself, and part of the religious establishment.  God sabotages all of that.  God says, “I don’t know you that way.”  “I know you in a different way, apart from who your momma and daddy are, or where you went to church, or who your Sunday School teacher was.”  God says, “I know you as Jeremiah.”  “You are Jeremiah with something important to say.”

Being known is an important part of being heard.  If people know you, you might get a hearing.  Others will listen to what Jeremiah says on God’s behalf.  God has known Jeremiah for so long now he knows he’s the right person to speak to parched ears and dry souls.  Israel has lost the ability to tell its own story.  It is Jeremiah’s turn, like a child, to help but the most basic words, feelings, and emotions together for those who are ambivalent to what God is calling them to do.

It’s not easy being a prophet or prophetic.  Prophets are not fortune tellers.  Prophets are truth-tellers.  This is what Jeremiah’s being called to do.  At their most basic level, prophets are people who call the status quo into question.  Where we are now is never good enough for an Amos, Micah, or Hosea.  It will be the same for Jeremiah.  Prophets have an innate interior compass that points toward an unreasonable expectation of hope.  The prophet’s idea of hope sounds like science fiction when compared to the down to earth dry realities of the status quo.  Here’s the thing, God is in the hope.  Like cheap hot dogs, we have no idea what’s in the status quo.  We’re also certain God’s been factored out of the recipe.   The prophetic task is also tinged with grief.  It is emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically challenging to see and say the difficult things God lays before us.  God’s words are enormously troubling, “dig up and pull down” and “destroy and demolish”.  And yet they are book-ended by the hopeful command to “build and plant”.  Out of the oppressive, violent, death dealing status quo, grows hope.

You are in your church home.  So I will say this, “I know you”.  I knew each one of you when you sat in Ocracoke United Methodist Church.  You know it will not be easy to be a prophet or live prophetic lives.  However, like Jeremiah, you are called.  From this moment, you are called.  We have big decisions to make this morning.  Are you going to say, yes that’s me?  God you do know me.  I’m the one.  The second big decision to make is this: are we going to live prophetically, like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and countless others.  This is not about old guys in the Bible.  It’s about you and me today.  Are you able to call the status quo into question, point your interior compass toward hope, and live with the challenges of grief?  If you can do that, remember, you’re a prophet too.

 

 

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Food for Thought-People Who Don’t Come To Church

 

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1. Most people who don’t come to church aren’t atheist or agnostic. They have an indifference or apathy toward organized religion. Church is simply not important to their lives. They treat church as a restaurant which they expect to have open tables at least twice year.  We are a franchise they admire but expect others to patronize in their absence.

2. While many will not self identify as Christians, people who don’t come to church expect those who are Christian to live up to the title of “Christian”. No one understands this and while they don’t come to church or define themselves as Christian, people who don’t come to church are good at spotting inauthentic Christianity.

3. Most people who don’t come to church define themselves as “spiritual”.  Many things can be spiritual.  Jesus is a religious figure not a “spiritual” ideal for most people who don’t come to church.

4. People who don’t come to church are generous when it comes to charity and specific stewardship issues; if these are highlighted properly.

5. People who don’t come to church are not church illiterate. Most have been to church at some point in their lives. A few have never been. Even those who’ve never been to church have read classics of literature about churches, seen films, pictures, or traveled. No one is unchurched.

6. I do not like the word unchurched.  Something about the word has always struck me as presumptuous and rude.

7. “People who don’t come to church” is wordy. I realize this. However, this seems a more accurate and humane way to describe the world around us.

8. People who do not go to church do not like to be talked down to or reduced to evangelical marketing terminology. They need people who won’t judge them, a pastoral presence, and Christian community like the rest of us.  If we do that, we bring church to them.  

9. Most people who don’t go to church have never heard anyone talk honestly about who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he taught.

10. People who don’t come to church will have a hard time committing to an every week commitment. Occasional IS the new regular. Yes, this plays havoc with nursery schedules, acolytes, flowers, and other time honored routines.  Is it time we re-evaluated our holy habits?  What’s truly important to Sunday morning and the integrity of worship?  We do not seek a commitments for the sake of commitment.  Churches are fellowships woven together by starts and stops.  

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Things I Tell My Daughters

 

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1. You can date when you’re 37.
2. Do not trim your nails in areas where food in consumed.
3. Shoes are required for service at the gas station. Why would they lie about the need to cover your feet?
4. Yes.
5. The suburbs are a state of mind, not an address.
6. Resetting the modem is like believing in God. Much faith is involved.
7. Clean your room or the dog gets it.
8. Yes, I love the dog.
9. If the beet harvest is adequate, you can date at 33.
10. No.

Food for Thought-Confessions of A Bad United Methodist

 

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1. I say yes to Jesus as the primary means of accessing God’s story. I say no to the Book of Discipline as repository of divinely inspired doctrine.

2. I do not believe Jesus is about doctrine. He’s about telling God’s story. How does God’s story interact with our own? Methodists have become obsessed with doctrine and discipline. Our lives are built on a text we call the “Book of Discipline”.   Even an armchair Freudian would wonder:  are we sadomasochists or followers of Jesus?

3. Our system for appointing and assigning clergy was designed for pre-industrial, segregated, slave holding America. If Andrew Jackson or James K. Polk are suddenly re-elected, we have the right system for selecting clergy.

4. We have allowed the creation of a 1% class among denominational executives whose wealth, privilege, and position isolate them from the 99% of United Methodists working to tell Jesus’ story.

5. I confess that sin exists in human hearts. I also confess that sin exists in the political and economic structures which hold our hearts captive. I confess it’s far too easy for us to talk about the sin of the human heart and much more difficult to talk about the political and economic sin to which we sacrifice our strangely warmed hearts.

6. I say yes to forgiving in ways that our current definition of God says, “no, this is unforgivable”.

7. I believe common sense is a better guide to the future than anything large church pastors with Abingdon publishing contracts repeatedly tell Methodism.

8. I confess, when I hear, “we have an app for that”, my mind shuts down and I think “who doesn’t?” Your fascination with technology bores me.

9. I believe that we are made in God’s image. Socialists, women, people of color, children, migrants, homosexuals, Republicans, men, atheists, Democrats, and even United Methodists are made in God’s image. Whether we wear t-shirts for Christ, listen to K-Love, go to church, or read Karl Marx, we are all made in God’s image.

10. I believe we better be certain when we speak for God. I sure hope we’re right. If we’re wrong, one way or another, there will be hell to pay.

Food for Thought-The Book Reviewer: A Sermon (Nehemiah 8:1-10)

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Of the many things which bother me (and let me assure you there are quite a few), poorly written book reviews can be as infuriating as listening to someone clip their fingernails in an area of the house I’ve deemed inappropriate for such an activity.

Ineptly written book reviews, you know the kind, laced with verbal ambiguity and intellectual vagaries say nothing at all about the book in question. They speak more to the reviewer’s idiosyncrasies and personal proclivities than the content of the work being reviewed. Often it is not clear if the reviewer has read the book. One would like to make this assumption but you can’t. By the end of the review, it is not evident if the reviewer loves the book, hates the author, or is completely indifferent. You can see this same pattern in reviews of fiction and non-fiction.

Good, or well-written book reviews do just the opposite. From the beginning, even without saying, “I read this book”, it is clear the reviewer has read this book and every book by the writer in question. You can smell familiarity with a text in the same you could smell me after a week on the Trans-Siberian express. It is unmistakable. With an economy of words, they get to the point and tell you what the author is doing and why this book is or isn’t worth your time and money. These good, well-informed and well-intentioned reviewers do this without spoiling the book. Somehow, they make informed reactions and leave the door open for you to make an informed decision whether or not to purchase the book.

Here’s where I have a confession to make. I usually read a book review, even when I know I’m going to buy a book. I read the review wanting to know what “they” say about a book I’ve already decided to purchase. Lord, help the reviewer who disagrees with me, doesn’t like, or disagrees with a decision I’ve already made to purchase a book. You see, that bothers me too.

That’s not how book reviews are supposed to work. Our minds aren’t usually made up. We don’t know what we’re going to read. My quest for self-affirmation is backwards. If we do know anything about a book, our knowledge is a little sketchy. Maybe we heard something on the radio or saw the author interviewed on TV.  An impartial, well-written book review directs us to what is in the book, what we’ll be getting into, and the intellectual commitments required by engaging this book.

In the wake of the Babylonian Exile, the lives of the Israelites were in chaos. With the religious, social, and cultural bonds which defined them as Israel severed for the time they lived in Babylon, they felt like didn’t know who they were. Simply reoccupying their land wasn’t the answer. Two guys, two of their leaders (Ezra and Nehemiah) realized that unless they could find their footing, events like the Babylonian captivity would keep happening. Unless they were a community, who cared about each other, and realized their futures depend on each other thriving, not just individuals surviving; they’d be someone else’s captives. In the Old Testament we learn this: individuals make it when communities thrive.

How do you bring shattered, disparate, individuals together? Remind them of their common purpose and beliefs. One way to do that is by reading a book. You form a national book club. You read the Bible. This was Ezra’s genius idea. Everybody knows the Bible, right? These are all devout Jews. Wrong and yes. Most of these people haven’t read the book. They need an honest review to help them understand and they need the book.

It was by the Water Gate. That’s always made me laugh. Everyone gathered by the Water Gate to hear what God had to say. In our world, the word Watergate is synonymous with secrets, government conspiracy, and corruption. In the Bible, here in the 8th chapter of Nehemiah, the water gate is the place where God opens up, where no secrets are hidden, and where the witness of the word is available to all. And in echoes of creation itself, the word goes out over the water, over what has become a formless void, to recreate Israel anew. What happens next is really exciting. If we gather by the water gate and step into the formless void, with the people Ezra has called forth, we are stepping into a relationship with the Bible unlike any we’ve ever known.

No one is to be excluded. Men, women, children; everyone can be in this great gathering. Scripture says, “Anyone who could understand what they heard.” That’s anyone who can read (or listen to) a book review, anyone who’s willing to start from wherever they are, and anyone who wants to walk and listen with an open heart and mind. As the Israelites start over, here in Nehemiah 8, we learn this: Hearing and understanding are the keys to forming a community and building a relationship with God. Who are you hearing today? Who do you understand this morning? What have you misunderstood this morning? Are you mishearing? Is it at home, work, school or even here at church? What have we misheard and misunderstood? What do we need to hear and understand to better form our community and build our relationship with God?

I would like to able to tell you that something supernatural occurred; such as at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Holy Spirit descended in a blue flame from the sky, melted faces, people shouted and screamed, they spoke in tongues, danced in the aisles, and had a high old time. I can’t tell you that because it didn’t happen. Here’s what went down. Ezra opened the Torah scroll and read to the people (all those who could understand). Oh, Ezra was on a wooden platform so they could see and hear him better. Do you know what the people did? They went to sleep, right? They passed out from heat stroke? No! They went crazy for public Bible reading! Why were people so enthused?

Look at verse seven. This may be the most important verse in the entire passage. The Levites (I won’t name them all), “helped the people to understand the Instruction while the people remained in their places. They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting so the people could understand what they heard.” Did you get that? These priests had the job of going out (like good book reviewers) and helping people to understand and interpret what they heard Ezra reading (before they read it themselves). They moved among the crowd to make sure everyone was able to get the point and understand the Instruction Ezra presented. Why? Because hearing and understanding are the keys to community and building a relationship with God.  Ezra realized people simply didn’t know the Torah. He took nothing for granted. He didn’t stand up and berate people with, “In the good old days, in the time of Moses, your great-great-great grandparents knew everything about the Bible.” If he needed to start at square one, he went to square one. What good would it do to play a blame game?  Ezra is trying to tell us: you cannot berate people back to church or back into a relationship with God. We walk with each other on the journey or we will not go at all.  We go in peace or we do not go.

Do not mourn or weep, those would be fighting words in some churches. Good thing I’m quoting the Bible. It is so easy to be overcome with sadness when we are confronted with God’s goodness in our lives. Our tendency is to weep as we account for the good things God has provided in our lives. Part of that is human nature. Ezra calls us out on our weepiness. He’s not one for crying testimonies. Ezra says, “Go have a party, eat unhealthy food”. Then he says give some of your food away to people who don’t have any. Drink wine, break bread, give away food. Is it me or does this sound a bit like Jesus Christ at the last supper? Faith is a celebration; not a race to tell the saddest story of sin and moral depravity.

Echoes of Genesis. Echoes of the Eucharist. God is at work in a beautiful way in this story. My review is this: I want to read more of this book.

Food for Thought-The Methodist Mutual Admiration Society

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One of the aspects of the annual conference (and now general conference) process I find frustrating is that as a church, we pretend as if what we do matters to the entire world. Jesus Christ matters to the entire world. The Church universal matters to humanity; the bureaucracy of the United Methodist Church does not. We speak as if our decisions are looked upon by the rest of Christendom as definitive, trend setting, and important. We talk about how grand it is to be Methodist.  And while pep-talks are nice, these easily slide into the realm of, “wow, aren’t we awesome.”  The year is 2016 not 451.  Portland is not the new Council of Chalcedon.

Here’s the headline: no one cares what we do. Most of what comes out of our meetings matters only to United Methodists. We like to hear ourselves talk and complement our ability to be the Christians we think we are. Few people are invested in what happens in Portland even with the momentous decisions hanging over our heads.

The people in our churches are burned out, economically strapped, care little about denominational politics, and most want everyone treated fairly. The United Methodist Church is not the Anglican Communion. Whatever we decide to do will not make the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, or France 24. We might garner a few seconds of crawl across the screen on CNN or Fox News. Our Very Important People will not be interviewed by any well-known journalists. In light of what’s going on in the world and with the election that will be well underway by that time, what a dying Protestant denomination has finally decided to do or not do about marriage equality won’t rank high on most Twitter feeds. Let’s be clear, we’re doing this for ourselves, for our own peace of mind, and to break the stranglehold of the religious right on United Methodism’s future. I believe the future of the denomination depends on such a break. Change is not only good but inevitable.

Altering the Book of Discipline (or changing our policy on homosexuality) is not about what other denominations have done or following the US Supreme Court’s ruling. As United Methodists we want to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Right now, we’re far from faithful. We’re discriminating against and hurting people we’re supposed to be serving. We pretend we’re a bigger deal than we actually are on the global religious scene. We’ve decided to call the managed chaos of the present “spirit driven”. Few things are spirit driven about the chaos we face. Egos, money, and fear are driving our existence. Perhaps it is time to stop listening so much to each other, to the United Methodist Mutual Admiration Society and hear the pain of the world around us. Put down the cameras, phones, and convenient schedules. Feed the hungry now, sit with the sick now, speak up for the immigrants, orphans, gay, lesbian, transgender communities, the widows, and go directly to them. Plant yourself in the middle of people who may never go to church. Go to those  who have grown to hate who we are and what we do.  Be a church even amidst profanity, doubt, and pain. Be present. Take no pictures. Do not make a PowerPoint presentation. If you have money in your pockets, give it away. Bring food to share. Submit your name for no evangelism awards. Just go. In the name of Christ, go. Take Christ with you and go.