Game of Fishing Tournament Thrones

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Saramok, the Goddess of the West Sound Marshes was angry.  Spring had missed the last ferry from the Swan’s Quarter and no mosquito harvest was reaped.  How were the people to know she was bitter?  Her rage, so vital and yet undetectable in the ever changing winds, frightened the mice who came to play backgammon on the steps of the local food pantry.  Because they were small, people paid little notice to mice addicted to a Byzantine board game.  It was not until the eve of the eve of the last quarter moon that Saramok’s acrimony became clear to the entire village.  In the night, teams of local fisher-dwarfs were dispatched along the shore of eastern sea.   This annual festival, dating from ancient days, pitted humanity against the sea gods to see who might remove the most and mightiest creatures from our darkened waters. Through the nocturnal hours they waited and no fish were caught or creature came forth.  The ocean waters of the east were barren.  Saramok, Goddess of the Western Marshes, was angry.

What does one do when the sea offers nothing but a place in which to see your own reflection?  The elders of the village gathered in a hastily formed council with the conveners of the festival.  How does one fish with no fish and an angry goddess lurking the shores of the western sound?  Outragoth the Elder spoke for many in the community, “An offering to the Goddess needs to be made.”  Yes, this seemed obvious.  “Outragoth,” asked Tourisatha, “what kind of offering do you propose? The mosquito offering was sparse, we have no grain, and the mice left once the meeting began.”

“Well, whose turn is it to die?” asked Wellmeanthsuggestionth. Yes, Wellmeanhtsuggestionth was proposing the idea of human sacrifice.  Good ideas, had been sacrificed before on the altar of the God “Proggesor”.  No one had ever made a human sacrifice to Saramok, the Goddess of the West Sound Marshes.

In days before recorded history, the prophets on the north end of the island proscribed many rules for the villagers living on the southern tip.  Without the prophets of the northern kingdom, the southerners wouldn’t know where to live, how many ducks to rear in October, or what to sell the voyagers who journeyed to the island after the Summer Solstice.  Despite their dependency on the northern prophets and having established a functioning society based on these rules, no one had ever covered, “What happens if Saramok the Western Sound Marsh Goddess becomes angry and the fish of the Eastern Ocean stop biting during the festival?”  Now, some wanted to sacrifice a person to guarantee more fish.  Was anyone opposed to this idea?  Perhaps we could reason with Saramok?

“Does anyone know her tastes in food or if she even likes human flesh?” asked Youthor, one of younger members of the village.  “We can’t assume she like people if we’ve never sent her a menu, so to speak.  Isn’t a bit presumptuous to think that just because she’s a God she’ll be appeased by dead people?”

Youthor had a valid point.  We might alienate Saramok even further by seeming rude and arrogant and immediately jumping to human sacrifice as our default choice.  Surely, there had to be some other way to please a god than by killing something?  It was a novel idea but people were having trouble holding on to the concept.

Suggestions were flying in from all over the place.  “Has anyone thought of this,” asked Commonsensthia, “maybe the fish not biting on the Eastern Ocean side has nothing to do with what’s happening on the Western Marshes.  Could it be that the fish simply aren’t biting because of how cold it’s been in the air, the water, and the fish are swimming somewhere else in the sea?  Besides, I’m not sure there’s even a Goddess on the Western Marshes.  I was over there all day yesterday.  I caught plenty of fish.”

Outragoth raised his hand, “Well friends, I think we’ve volunteer.  Congratulations Commonsensthia, you’re our first human sacrifice.”

 

Mark Tooley and the Institute for Religion and Democracy Gives Me Nightmares

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Last night, I made the mistake of reading a flurry of tweets and articles from Mark Tooley and the Institute for Religion and Democracy. I shouldn’t have done this. Not only did I come away depressed but it made me angry. Neither are prerequisites for a good night’s sleep. It’s my fault; I shouldn’t have let it get to me.  Yes, Tooley’s attempts to characterize United Methodists like me as sexual liberals, opposed to natural marriage,  who do not believe in classical Christian orthodoxy are both hurtful and wrong. I’m married, have three kids, and can’t remember the last time my wife and had a date.  We do have an anniversary on Wednesday.

I also envision a United Methodist church where committed men and women who are in love with other men and women can get married to each other; regardless of their sexual orientation. I’ve been in no conversations, read nothing about Methodists messing with polyamory or embracing the irrelevance of monogamy. We’re obsessed with imagining no malaria and mosquitoes, Mark! What weird meetings have you been attending? Please keep me off that mailing list.

The church might want to address the relevance of monogamy. Why shouldn’t we take a stance to endorse what everyone’s already not doing? How very United Methodist! We’re going to take a position; a dying Protestant denomination will convince the world that their bed hopping habits are wrong.

I’ve been in full time ministry for almost 20 years and everyone I’ve ever married on three continents was living together or semi-monogamous when they tied the knot. If Tooley is so upset, we need to stop marrying heterosexual people in the United Methodist Church because the majority of them are cohabiting or skirting the bounds of monogamy.  Isn’t that also “sin” in his inerrant, strict Book of Disciplinary world?   There’s so much illicit, sinful sex among our heterosexual Methodists, could it be that the only people with healthy monogamous sex lives are our Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters?  To admit that, you’d have to undermine the authority of scripture.  That’s a whole other ball of wax.

How stupid would we look by coming so late to the party? Again, like North Carolina’s HB 2 resolution, United Methodists are in search of solutions to problems which don’t need solving.  I endorse monogamy, but a bunch of well-meaning Methodists holding covered dish dinners aren’t going to convince middle aged straight people to stop sleeping with each other.  It’s going to to put us out of the marriage business altogether.

I’m not sure what Methodism would look like if Mark Tooley got his way. I do know I want no part of it. He doesn’t even know me and I’m sure he’d love to kick me to the curb. I might have to let him do it.

Scattered, Smothered Jesus Love and My Waffle House Hashbrowns

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When I was younger than I am today, I would listen to AM radio with my grandmother.  Perched above her washing machine on a stack of old phone books and Sears catalogs in her kitchen, the radio was to only one or two stations.  They were AM 1230, WMFR (sometimes identified as “We Make Furniture Radio or W Mighty Fine Radio) in High Point or WSJS, AM 600, the broadcasting arm of the Winston Salem Journal and Sentinel Newspaper.

Both stations began in the wake of the Great Depression well-served the needs of their communities.  Programs featuring birthdays and obituaries were among my grandmother’s favorites.  She loved to know who needed a cake and who needed a casserole.  On my birthday (an others in our family), she would call my name in to the station early in the morning, so the disc jockey “Max Meeks” could  read out my name (with the others sharing my day) and wish me a happy birthday.  All those celebrating on a given day then went into a hat for a drawing.  Winners received a gift certificate to the K and W cafeteria, an oil change, and a cake from a now defunct bakery.  I loved radio birthdays.  The expectation of the day, when combined with getting up early to hear my name on the radio was a gift in and of itself.  Besides that, what would I do with my oil change?

One of their occasional but regular programs was someone I called the “recipe lady”.  I am sure people like her are thriving in the digital era.  Her idea was simple; she went on the radio with hosts all of the country cracking the secrets of famous, copyrighted recipes, so folk could make the same thing at home.   If you wanted to make McDonald’s special sauce, she knew how to duplicate the flavor, taste, and consistency.  Red Lobster’s cheddar biscuits, she had those in the bag.  Anything like that, this woman could do.  Send her a few bucks and a self addressed stamped envelope, you too could get her monthly newsletter with all her recipes and latest discoveries.  So what did we do?  I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote a letter to a woman in the Midwest and said, “Send me your recipes”.   I bought a stamp, which was a single quarter, and wrote my own address on the envelope:

Richard L Bryant

RR 3 Box 267

Trinity, NC 27370

Forthwith, my empty envelope was mailed to somewhere in Minnesota.  About two weeks later, I was a member of the recipe club.

The newsletter looked much like the ones my local school sent home every few weeks.  Typed on an ancient typewriter and copied on a mimeograph machine; there were plenty of ideas for my mother and grandmother to attempt.  That’s how it worked, they attempt and I eat.  When I attempted, I made messes.  The Holy Grail, however, wasn’t there.  Where were the Waffle House hash browns?

All these other things seemed incredibly nice, especially if I wanted to recreate the magic of Main Street in my back yard.  But there was no Waffle House.

How do you describe color to someone born blind?  Or explain Mozart to someone who’s deaf?  For me to talk about eating at the Waffle House and consuming their hash browns presents much the same challenge.  I guess I’m in love with the Waffle Hash Browns.

Look at how they are presented, everyone who comes through the door are offered these six choices:

Traditional; Scattered and Smothered (Onions); Scattered, Smothered and Covered (Onions and Melted Cheese); Scattered, Smothered, Covered and Chunked (Onions, Cheese, and Ham); Scattered, Smothered, Covered, Chunked, and Topped (Onions, Cheese, Ham, and Chili); Scattered, Smothered, Covered, Chunked, Topped, and Diced (Onions, Cheese, Ham, Chili, and Diced Tomatoes)

What more could one want in food or a relationship?  Shakespeare died 400 years ago this weekend and knew a thing or two about love.   In Sonnet 116 he said, “But bears it out even to the edge of doom.  If this be error and upon me proved.” “It” may be love or “it” may be smothered and covered, chunked, topped, and diced hash browns.  Chili and onions, (like love) may bear you out to the edge of doom but if this isn’t right, I ask you to prove it.

Yes, I did and do love the Waffle House.  As you might have guessed, there are no Waffle Houses or hash browns on the highway between Moscow and Kiev.  What do you do when what you love leaves you behind? Do you wait or do you learn how to make your own hash browns (i.e. cut vegetables, make chili, and dice tomatoes), even if they’re not in the recipe newsletter?

The disciples loved Jesus like I love hash browns, and then some.  On the other hand Jesus wasn’t the manager of a growing chain of Waffle Houses along I-85 between Richmond and Atlanta.  The disciples aren’t being prepped for some do it yourself investment scheme in the wake of Jesus’ hasty departure.  The disciples weren’t shift workers or franchisees.  They were his friends.

He wants his friends to be able to do his work and ministry exactly as he’s done it.  Jesus is not offering the disciples a newsletter to create the closest approximation of his healing and teaching.  He wants them to do exactly has he’s being doing over the past three years.  It’s not good enough to have something fairly close to McDonald’s special sauce or Red Lobster’s cheddar biscuits.  It all has to be from the original restaurant in Nazareth.  This is how people will spot authentic Christianity, in the taste, and using Jesus’ original recipes not fabricated menus or educated guesses.  The world will know who we are because we use the key ingredient from Jesus’ menu.  What is this key ingredient?  It is love.

Once Jesus has turned the neighborhood over to us, the responsibility to be Jesus in the world falls on our shoulders.  This should not come as surprise.  The resurrection is embodied in each one of our lives.  If the world is going to “taste and see” that the Lord is good, they will know it by how well we follow the recipe we’ve been given.  The defining feature of that recipe is love.  It is impossible to make something else taste and look like love.  Oh, the church can fake it till we make it for a short time, but eventually; the world will it figure out; our biscuits did not come from Red Lobster.  They will see that our love is not of Jesus Christ.

“When you love each other,” John says, “this is how everyone will know you are my disciples.”  Richard’s translation:  When you take what you love (maybe Hash Browns) and make it your own and start to share it with others; that’s when people will start to see you’re serious about being Jesus in the world.    That’s the neat thing about being in love with Jesus and hash browns; it doesn’t take much to take your love on the road.  If you can shred potatoes, dice a few veggies, and make some chili, you’ve got the real thing.  There are no trade secrets in the Waffle House hash brown world.  The Waffle House Illuminati are keeping nothing under wraps.  It’s the same way with Jesus.  Loving people is no secret.  Anyone can do it.  It’s just hard.

Jesus Invited Me to A Baseball Game

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He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” -Luke 23:43

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

-Revelation 21:1-6

“God is a Methodist” -Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (1942-1950)

In Luke 23:43, moments before he dies, Jesus speaks these words to one of the two men who are also hanging from crosses, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”  Paradise is a powerful word.  It is an etymological fact that the root of the word “paradise” (the same term Jesus used) comes from an ancient Persian word meaning an “enclosed park or green”.  Today, we play fast and loose with the term “paradise”.  Anything can be a “paradise”.  In short, we abuse the word.  Paradise is personalized, whatever we want it to be; a product of our own personal desires.  However, the Bible says God has a hand in the creation of paradise.  It’s almost, as if, we work together.

When I read Luke and follow “paradise” through the Bible and examine its origin, I am more convinced than ever the “enclosed park or green” is nothing like I’ve pictured or been led to believe.  To tell you the truth, Paradise is only a short walk away.  If you look, Paradise isn’t difficult to find.

I think Jesus is describing a baseball field.  I hear “enclosed park or green” and I see a baseball park.  When it’s all said and done, Jesus is saying to the man on the cross, “when this day is over, you and I are going to a baseball game.”  What an amazing statement! Like our open ceilinged cathedrals of sky, where pop flies, home runs, and base hits allow us the opportunity to play a game of thoughtful intention; Jesus’ paradise draws us closer to each other and God.

The French Benedictine Abbé, Ernest Dimnet once wrote, “Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul.”  This is especially true of baseball parks, unconscious and unaware of their utilitarian nature; they subtly work upon our souls and draw out our prayers.  We pray for runners to steal second, outfielders to catch, and players to be called safe.  At their best churches do the same.  We help elicit words for others; those hard to speak in other places; in language to strong for polite company and reserved for God alone.

The ballpark helps to define the experience of the game itself.  We know as much about the storied histories of the baseball stadiums as we do the teams they represent.  Names like Ebbets Field, Camden Yards, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and Fenway Park tell stories in and of themselves.  We know our own community baseball park is a special place.  It is like the paradise Jesus is describing. A Wednesday afternoon, watching a game, eating a hot dog and cheering the team is a tiny glimpse of the community created by the kingdom of God. Now we have new questions.  Are we able to connect these parts of our lives?  Do we understand our baseball games as more than stops on our young people’s journeys toward maturity?  Do we understand them as something bigger than ourselves?  If you answer yes, it’s possible to see why Jesus told the thief, “Today, you’re going with me to a baseball game.”

Do we want to watch something fun with Jesus where we all come away victors, in one way or another?  Jesus makes us this offer.  Can you imagine a more warm and inviting offer?  What would a baseball game with Jesus look like?  Where is such a game described?

For box seats along the first base line in “Paradise Park” or “Eternity Field”, you will need to go to the end of the book.  It’s at the corner of “ninth inning” lane and “Patmos” alley; on the backstreets of the Bible itself.  The baseball park, the “enclosed green” in which Jesus is inviting our participation is described in the first six verses of Revelation 21.

The writer of the Book of Revelation has, like the man on the cross before him, been invited to see paradise; God’s baseball stadium.  Immediately, we are struck by the word new.  A new heaven, a new Earth, and “the sea is no more”. Wait; is this some kind of environmentalist manifesto?   What’s wrong with the old heaven?  We normally understand the “new Earth” idea and “no sea” as results of ecological malfeasance.  This isn’t the case with John’s version of events. In Jesus’ ballpark, it’s about making all things new.  Even in baseball, new places make history.

Construction began on Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1989.  The Orioles played their first season in the new stadium in 1992.  In less than one presidential term of office, Baltimore created history.  It’s difficult to talk to an Orioles fan without using the words “Camden Yards”.  I’m not sure I can remember talking about the Orioles without making the association between the team and place.  You don’t need to be in a place as old as Wrigley Field to know something new happens every time someone different comes to bat.

Umpires aren’t angels.  Charged with the difficult responsibility of keeping the beautiful fair, their words bring the baseball field to life.  In verse 5, the angelic home base umpire enlivens paradise with a single word, “look”.  “Everything is about to begin”, he says.  It’s the ancient Greek equivalent of “play ball”.  An imperative command for all gathered to be alert, prepared, and ready for what comes next.  “Look! I’m making all things new.”  This is new game on a new field.

This is to be a memorable moment.  Baseball, like our faith, is made for living memories to be recalled and shared.  Baseball is full of significance beyond batting averages and RBI’s.  Christianity isn’t just an accumulation of facts to be shared like trivia.  I know Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg in 1517.  Dates are good to know.  However, it’s equally important to know the content of the argument plus the date of the event.  While a date may frame our memory and offer context, it takes more than a series of numbers for the game to mean something.  The content, the game itself, changes lives.  This is why we pay attention to the human drama before us.

The baseball game transcends time.  By its very nature, it is apocalyptic.  Baseball is a revelatory, kairos event which isn’t bound by humanity’s linear limitations of light, dark, life, and death.  The designation of innings is for records which demand to be remembered in writing well beyond the last out and the final pitch.  The episodic nature of the game lends our minds to think in terms of both chapter and verse.  We must read and re-read what we’ve seen.  Our souls seek a retelling of memories beyond the instant replay of televised games and Sunday morning services.  Baseball, like the gospel isn’t confined to the self contained Paradise where it’s witnessed.

The angel is asking John to, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true”.  This angelic umpire says these events, the game, and the place matter more than the stats.  Don’t take a picture with your phone, snap a selfie with Jesus, or say you’ll do it later.  Write something down.  You’re in the best place you’ll ever be and the events unfolding before you matter more than you’ll ever know.  If you don’t pay attention, if you move your glance for a moment; you’ll miss something.  How many times have you turned away, only for a moment to ask, “What was that last play?”  Write these things down, says John.  Remember, what you are seeing today is a glimpse of eternity.  It is green, a park, simple, and unfolding in a way for everyone to enjoy.  This is baseball with Jesus, who, according to Branch Rickey was a Methodist.  It’s nice to have that in common.  Baseball, Jesus, and Methodism:  what a trifecta!

 

Blunderbuss, Musket, and Scuttlebutt Believe I Eat Buffalo

IMG_5247Our daughters, Blunderbuss, Musket, and Scuttlebutt all lead fairly charmed lives.  Like a depression-era fairy tale, they are provided with a chauffeur (their mother) and a butler (me).  When the chauffeur takes one or two of our daughters away for the day to purchase shoes for a fancy dress ball (often referred to as a prom), the butler (me) has an expanded set of duties.  Instead of my usual “butler-ing”, I might also chauffeur around town, butler in areas beyond my usual job description, and do a greater degree of meal preparation.  It’s how being a butler works.  I know this from watching hours of Downton Abbey.

Saturday arrived as expected, a day of sunshine and low wind between Friday and Sunday.  As planned, the chauffeur was going to take Blunderbuss to buy shoes for her fancy dress ball (often referred to as a prom) in the nearest large community where such shoes were sold.  Sensing the opportunity for adventure and chicken nuggets for lunch, Scuttlebutt signed on as second mate.  One other stowaway, “she with limited phone privileges”, also tagged along.  The allure of the fancy dress ball and the desire for new shoes is hard to turn down.*

Musket and I were left to fend for ourselves.  In other words, I became Mr. Belvedere for a day.  Does anyone remember Mr. Belvedere?  (He was English, a butler, jovial, and always seemed to know what to do.)  Dinner time rolled around and it became clear, I didn’t feel like cooking for the two of us.  I asked Musket if she wanted to go out to eat.  Of course, but like all the discerning women in our family, her palate was honed in the underground dining scene of Belfast and Dublin.  “I want chicken tenders but I prefer,” and she proceeded to tell me her favorite chicken tenders within walking distance.

I’m a butler, father, and chauffeur.  This evening, her decision was mine.  Shortly after the meal arrived, we were both enjoying our food; her chicken fingers and my buffalo wings. Our waiter dropped by the table and asked, “How are you enjoying your chicken?”  “Fine,” I said, “It’s great”.

Musket looked a little confused, “Why did he ask if you were enjoying your chicken, I thought you were having Buffalo wings?”

“What?” I asked.  “I thought you were having Buffalo wings,” she said. “Aren’t they made of buffalo?”

All this time, my child has thought I’ve been eating buffalo.  Dear God, Forgive me for all the buffaloes she believes I’ve eaten and been complicit in their slaughter.  I’m OK with being linked to eating chicken meat for culinary pleasure.  Amen.

*Despite the movie Frozen’s massive popularity and its emphasis on running away from parties and living alone in ice castle, fancy dress balls are huge with people who’ve seen and know all the words to Frozen.