The Tobacco Field Retelling of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14)

 

Do you want to hear a story?  Boy, do I have one to tell.  My daddy was always one to go off and do crazy things.  There was this one time, when before I was born, he decided to move half way across the world because God told him to.  He took my mama, his friend Lot, Lot’s wife, and some other people and decided to move from what you would call Iraq to what I call Israel.  How many Babylonians just up and move to Israel?   Other than us, I can’t think of that many.

One time daddy got so mad at Lot, they had to split up and go their own way.  I don’t know the whole story.  Like I told you, it was before I was born.  It did end well for Lot.  His wife, she was a cauldron of evil and lust.  Winsome for all the sins of the flesh about to be destroyed in Sodom and Gomorrah, she looked back just before God blew the place off the map, and got turned to salt, sodium chloride.  Now remember, I wasn’t there.  I’m just going off what I been told.  I’ve never met Lot.  I’ll tell you the truth about his wife. We ain’t never run out of salt.

Where was I?  Yeah, I was going to tell you my story.  You want to hear about one that happened after I was born, was alive for, and received front row tickets.  I can tell you that story.  This one happened not too long ago, after we finally got to where we were going.  Daddy didn’t believe in maps.  He intuited his way between trees, rocks, and mountains because God said keep walking west.  Mama, she didn’t have much faith in his sense of direction.  “Abraham, where are you going?” she would ask.  “God is telling me,” he would reply.  The longer the pause between replies we were sure that daddy was lost or this God feller was taking a nap.  “Talk louder, I don’t think he hears you,” Mama would yell back at Daddy.  “I don’t think you understand the complexities of our relationship,” was the look he’d shoot back our way.  So we would wait until God spoke his message straight into Daddy’s head.  It might be in the middle of the night or lunchtime.  Whenever it was, that was the time we moved.

Where was I?  My story, the story, the one that happened after I was born, was alive, for and had front row tickets.  Stop me if you’ve heard it before.  I hear it’s being told by some hack has been story tellers from down by Sinai and across into Egypt.  The way they’ve been telling it, I was eight years old.  When I was eight, we were still in the desert living in a double wide in a trailer park outside of Damascus.  Daddy worked third shift at the salt mines and Mama knitted baby quilts.  Hagar still lived with us.  I ain’t been eight in forever.

This story happened about a month ago.   I’ll be 38 next month.  So Daddy’s been talking to God.  I didn’t find this part out until much later (say three weeks ago.)  He gets it in his really old brain that God is telling him to take me up Mount Moriah (that big ol’ hill up yonder) and sacrifice me to God as if I were a goat, sheep or ram.  Let me say that again.  My Daddy believes God has told him to take me, his son, up to the top that there mountain, and gut me like a ram then burn me alive as a religious offering to God.  That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.  I’m a grown man but I’m still his child.  He don’t argue, debate, or negotiate.  What is he thinking?  Do you know how long he and Mama tried to have a baby?  Now he’s just going to go up there and kill me because God says so.  Remember, at the time, I don’t know any of this.  He says we going camping, we might sacrifice something when we get there, and I help him load the stuff up on the animals.  Who honestly thinks you’re carrying the wood for your own human sacrifice?

It took us almost three days to get to the top of the mountain.  On the morning of the third day, daddy let the rest of the group go back down and we pressed on toward the summit.  It was just the two of us.  I didn’t want to be a pain in the butt though I noticed he’d neglected to bring an animal to sacrifice.  We had the whole kit:  wood and knife.  Sacrificing was simpler in those days.  Daddy, where’s the animal we going to sacrifice?  He said, “God will see to it.”  Now, maybe I’m as dumb as I look.  I still hadn’t caught on the plan.  Yes, perhaps there’s a pen of sacrificial goats waiting at the top of the next hill.  Who knows?  God acts in mysterious ways, right?  But I ask you, would you ever consider that one of your parents would sacrifice you?

Once we got there, we started building a stone altar for the sacrifice.  You take rocks and build them up about waist high.  The action really started while I was in the middle of moving some of the larger rocks.  I turned to place this one big stone toward the end and out of nowhere something hit me in the head.  Daddy knocked me out.  He hit me in the head with a baseball bat.  The next thing I knew, I was tied up and laid out on that altar.  What in the world?  I’m the sacrifice.   You’ve got to be kidding me.  Daddy, have you lost your mind.  He kind of shrugged his shoulders.

Daddy drew out the big killing knife like he was going to slit my throat.  That’s what you did.  You slit the throat watch the life drain from the animal and then light it on fire.  For a moment, I hoped I was being punked.  This had to be a sick, sick joke.  Then I realized it wasn’t.  He was going to kill me.  God demanded blood and Daddy was doing to give him mine.  What was going on?  My life flashed before my very eyes.  Would Ishmael remember my name?  Did Mama know anything about this?  If she did, surely she would have objected.  I was her baby boy.  How would he explain this to her?  What kind of God tells you to murder your own children?

About that time and angel showed up.  I don’t know what else to call a dude in white who saves you life.  I was as good as dead when the guy says, “Don’t kill the young man.  I now know that you really respect God and didn’t hold back your most precious only son from me.”  So that’s it?  Like magic, a ram appeared in the bushes to my left and Daddy untied me and he (not me) offered it as a new sacrifice.

This was some kind of loyalty test.  There’s got to better way to show God how much you revere, love, and respect God without nearly murdering the people you love.  Trust me; I’m the guy who was under the knife.  The knife was at my throat.  I had to live with my Daddy for years after that day and life was never the same.  When someone says, “God made me do it”, it don’t make forgiving or loving them any easier.  In fact, it makes it harder.    Anyway, that’s my story.  I told you it was a good one.  I got to go now.  I need to find a ride into town.  I got to get to my therapy session.   After that, my “Biblical Characters Who Were Abused and Nearly Murdered Anonymous” group meets tonight at the fire station.  See you later.

Will The Real United Methodists Please Stand Up?

Everybody has a diagnosis.  The bishops, the wise persons, the know-it-all bloggers like me; everyone know what’s wrong with the United Methodist Church.  Diagnoses are not in short supply.  Even people with little or no connection to Methodism can tell you what’s wrong with Methodism.  We need more this, less of that, and none of the other.  This, that, and the other usually include making more disciples for the transformation of the world, some form of holiness, and getting back to the purest form of Methodism ever practiced.  In identifying problems, (lack of real commitment to Orthodoxy, too many conservatives, or confusing social justice with social holiness) we easily begin to offer solutions.  Depending on who’s spotted the problem, their solutions will often be the only workable, feasible, theologically grounded, and Biblically sound of fixing what ails Methodism.  They’ve got the answer.  There’s no need to argue.  Sit back, bask in their brilliance, and be happy you’ve had the opportunity to see genius do in 140 characters or less what Saint John Chrysostom did in volumes.

Here’s what I’m finding:  among all of these competing voices, I don’t hear anyone speaking for a United Methodism.  In fact, I’m hard pressed to find anything resembling a “United” Methodism.  A quick survey of the issues (along the broad lines of conservative/liberal, progressive/orthodox) finds countless individual versions of self-made Methodism; all of which the authors would like to impose on a global denomination.  Granted, I know my ideas are unique to me, a white male, rooted in white privilege, living in a first world setting, in the wealthiest country in the world.  Yet, I’m not going to assume that anything I believe about this church is going to become a one size fits all version of global Christian Orthodoxy in the mold of a 19th century, colonialist mission program.  The dominant discussions about Orthodoxy, scripture, and covenant are driven by the personalities, individuals, seminaries, life experiences, annual conferences, jurisdictions, and churches which all formed their proponents.  Ego driven theology betrays the idea of scripturally formed unity.  To embrace a “united” vision of Methodism, one must accept that the church has and does speak with one voice.  We are fighting for a version of the church made in our own image.  That’s not unity.  It’s idolatry.  You can quote patristic texts until you’re blue in the face and sing the Nicene Creed in Byzantine Greek in every rural Methodist church between here and Atlanta, but if your church is your theology simply filtered through a bit of out of context John Wesley, you’re in a cult, not a church.

Have those who question the “unity” of the church ever accepted the legitimacy of any General Conference, the Social Principles, or anything that unifies the existing United Methodist Church?  I think history would show many of them have always been unhappy with the modern idea of Methodism.  Methodism, in the eyes of many, has also been in the process of renewal, being called back to some state of Wesleyan perfection. That’s the best possible analysis of our current dilemma. Here’s another: we’ve been in a circular firing squad for at least thirty years. To the impartial outside observer; we’ve never had anything right, we’ve always been deficient at discipleship (according to the Bishops), and have always needed to “catch the spirit”. Something is always wrong with how we rethink church. Being “United Methodist”, for those threatening to now leave Methodism, has been in name only. For those committed to the idea of unity, Methodism is an damaged ship in need of constant course correction. We keep harping the on same themes of denominational renewal. Somewhere, the church as a whole stopped listening. Now we see, no one agrees on the right heading, the name of the boat, or from which direction the wind is coming. Is it any wonder we have trouble attracting crew to a floundering vessel? Perhaps it is time to abandon ship? Did anyone remember to bring the lifeboats?

Hymn 363 asks the question “And Are Wet Yet Alive?”  I would ask, “And Are We Yet Methodist?”  Satisfied that we’ve never truly been united, I want to know, are we the Methodists we think we are?  No.  Perhaps the only Methodist was the man for whom the original pejorative was invented, John Wesley.  In his wake, we are only pale imitations of a perfection no one will ever attain.  Try as we might, Methodists are a peculiar people devoted to a heretical Anglican divine. Methodism is the bastard child of the English Reformation. Henry VIII divorce from Catherine of Aragon gave the world many things; one of which was the dilution of English Catholicism into a divided Anglicanism. The violence of the English Civil War and subsequent conflicts throughout the British isles left a lasting mark on the family of John Wesley. In Wesley’s DNA were dissenters, non-jurors, and others who fought with Oliver Cromwell. The virulent and violent forms of Calvinist Protestantism which took hold in some Anglican traditions were prominent in his family. It would be up to his father to accept the reign of William and Mary and supremacy of the Crown over the Church of England. His father’s decision, one that represented years of struggle and loss of life on both sides of his family, was not made lightly. It made Wesley’s journey to Oxford and career as a priest possible.

As Wesley and his brother Charles inherited their family’s legacy of involvement in the English Civil War, his commitment to the Church of England takes on a greater significance. This wasn’t a man following in his father’s ministerial footsteps. Wesley’s calling to enter the ministry of the Church of England was part and parcel of the Restoration itself. The Restoration of the monarchy and Protestantism to the throne created the conditions for England to become a world power. Wesley’s Anglicanism, even his conversion, is part of the England’s larger Restoration. Why is this historical excursus important? Methodism isn’t an afterthought It’s the next step in restoring and renewing the England he’s inherited. Restoration and renewal are Wesley’s methods for healing a country torn by sectarian tensions. With his death, the method becomes a means to an end. The method is disconnected from the larger vision of restoration. When John Wesley dies, so does Methodism.

So who are we? Will the real United Methodists please stand up? We’re not “United”. We call ourselves “Methodists” but who knows what that means anymore. Ask a hundred United Methodists and you’ll get a hundred answers. Before we go selling a bunch of churches and get even angrier at each other, let’s figure out what the sign out front really means.

What Are You Afraid Of? (Matthew 10:24-39)

What are you afraid of?  Take a moment and think about your fears.  Our fears don’t have to make sense or be rational; because they grow and live in our subconscious.  Because we are real, they are real.  You may be afraid of clowns.  For many years, I was terrified of butterflies.  As a child, if one came near me, I would scream bloody murder.  Rationally it made no sense, but the fear was tangible.  When I was a little older, I had an elaborate fear of being kidnapped.  I knew if I didn’t stay close to my parents or grandmother when we went to the grocery story, I would end up on a milk carton.  I saw kidnappers on every aisle at K-Mart.  Despite my father’s insistence that after a half an hour with me, I’d be promptly returned because I was too much trouble, I was afraid.  Among my current irrational fears, I’m terrified of being locked in a Porta Potty.

Then there are the rational, real fears which impact my ministry.  I, like many United Methodists, am afraid our church will split over issues relating to human sexuality. The decisions I’ll have to make when that time comes will impact our entire family.  This causes some real fear, different from any I knew as an eight year old at K-Mart.  Eight year old me wasn’t worried about pastoral appointments, health insurance, or pensions.

What are you afraid of?  What keeps you up at night?  Is there anything more powerful or motivating in human history than fear?

Jesus knew all about fear.  In fact, he spent a great deal of the 9th and 10th chapters of Matthew’s gospel talking specifically about how disciples deal with, approach, handle, and work through fear.  At this point in his ministry, Jesus has commissioned the disciples to go out and teach, heal, preach and spread the news of the coming kingdom of God.   It’s gone from “come and follow me”, listen to my words, to watch me, to naming and empowering them as his disciples.  All of this has occurred in a brief period of time.  These 12 people are given the task of reorienting and redefining the direction of civilization.  That’s nothing, right?  No, that’s everything.  Listen to the opportunity Jesus places before them:

“Then he called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every kind of ailment and disease.”  (Matthew 10:1)

“And as you go proclaim the message, ‘The kingdom of Heaven is upon you.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out devils.  You received without cost; give without charge.” (Matthew 10:8-9)

Then Jesus’ tone begins to change.  While they are reorienting the world they must also reorient their priorities.  This work, the mission, being a disciple, will be the most frightening, fear inducing thing they’ve ever done.  Jesus wants them to know what they signing up for.  They should be under no illusions.  Discipleship, changing the course of human civilization, giving people free health care (remember they are to heal the sick and take no money-that’s free health care) and proclaiming a kingdom of God that turns the values of this current world upside down will make people very angry.

Listen to the Son of God, here’s what Jesus says:

“And be on you guard, for men will hand you over to their courts, they will flog you in the synagogues, and you will be brought before governors and kings, for my sake to testify before them and the heathen.  But when you are arrested, do not worry about when you are to say; when the time comes, the words you need will be given; for it is not you who will be speaking; it will be the Spirit.

Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will turn against their parents and send them to their death.  All will hate you for your allegiance to me.”  (Matthew 10:17-22)

If you weren’t afraid before, you should be now.  Did you catch what Jesus said to his disciples?  When you “are” arrested, not you “might”, or if, “when you are arrested”.  Jesus says it’s a certainty.  Following Jesus will bring you into conflict with those who hold the levers of power and those who know you best.  He’s telling them they are going to be arrested, flogged, and beaten for their allegiance to him.

Now would be a good time to walk away, wouldn’t you think.  No sir, not me.  I have to keep it real.  I have my professional integrity.  I need to get paid.  Jesus says, “Provide no gold, silver, or copper for your purse.”  Who is he kidding? This is not what I signed up for.  An hour a week, that’s all I will do.  I’m not going to be beaten, flogged, or arrested for anything. You can hear the crowd complaining.

No one likes the cost of discipleship; whether then or now. The early church is walking into certain death to change the face of the modern world.  At some point, our priorities and perspectives have become skewed.  Following Jesus became cheap and easy.  We face no persecution, no obvious challenges to the existence of the church other than our own mortality, but the imperative to change the world is still present.  The kingdom of God is still at hand.  Jesus’ call on our lives has not wavered.  So I return to my first question of the morning?  Ocracoke Church, what we are afraid of?  What are the fears which prevent us from continuing to build the kingdom when literally nothing is standing in our way?  Nothing that is, except us.

Today’s lesson takes us about as far down the road of discipleship as it is possible to go. Essentially, Jesus says, it will get worse before it gets better.  (And while that sounds harsh, that’s the essence of the Good News!) The terms and descriptions Jesus uses in these next verses are literal, descriptive, and specific.  Sometimes we tend to borrow these phrases; when we do, they become general, metaphorical, and vague.   There is a danger in playing fast and loose with graphic language.  Let me give you an example.  In Matthew 10:38, Jesus is summing up his remarks to the disciples with these words, “Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me.”  That’s a pretty powerful statement.  Worth is a weighty word.  Those who don’t pick up their cross and follow Jesus aren’t worthy. Worthy of what:  love, being saved, called a disciple?  Worth points to an intrinsic quality, a hard to define, yet very personal idea about what makes us who we are.  It stinks to be told you’re not worthy of anything, let alone Jesus.

What does Jesus mean?  When Jesus talks about bearing a cross, you know what he is saying.  He means being crucified.  You bear your own cross to the execution site where you’re being crucified.  Someone bearing a cross is about to die.  There’s no ambiguity.  Discipleship ultimately means death.  Those are some stark terms Jesus lays out.  On the other hand, when we talk about “bearing a cross” it’s usually a cumbersome or painful obligation.  “We all have our cross to bear” goes the old expression.  Our crosses to bear are not like Jesus’ crosses.  To give you an idea how strange this should sound to our ears, how inappropriate would it be if you heard people saying, “We all have our concentration camps to stay in from time to time.”  No, it doesn’t work.  Our worst problems are nothing like a concentration camp.  Maybe we need to rethink how we talk about crosses. Jesus is being specific.  We’re being vague.  There’s danger in our metaphors.  If we carry Jesus’ cross we then have to acknowledge that Jesus is part and parcel of our work.  Without Jesus, Ocracoke Church is just another well meaning community non profit organization

The ambiguity in our cross carrying language waters down the earth shattering importance of what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples.  Discipleship requires whole life and whole heart commitment.  It isn’t worth it if you do any less.  Discipleship also demands a head on confrontation with those things we fear most: like death, grief, loss, self-worth, dysfunctional families, isolation, sickness, how I’m going to live, and what can I do to help people who are truly suffering?

The whole purpose of this 10th chapter of Matthew is to acknowledge the reality of fear.  Jesus knows it’s not all rainbows, sunshine, puppies, and lollipops.  Fear will meet your best attempts to be a disciple of Jesus Christ head on.  Now what are we going to do about it?  Will we shrink away and let fear win?  Will we use the same tired clichés about all the crosses we have to bear, which are really excuses, to justify keeping the world at arm’s length?  Or will we say it’s worth everything we have to give because none of this ours, it all came from God, the words will come, and the lost will be found.

A Wedding Homily for Later This Afternoon

Saint Paul makes a valiant attempt to compare love to the other spiritual gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit.  By means of contrast, love is the greatest gift of all, out pacing prophecy, speaking in tongues, and even faith.  We kind of get that, don’t we?  Love is a big deal.  However, if you’re not readily familiar with prophets, tongue speakers, and really faithful things; love only seems kind of important.  To really get how important love ought to be, we need our own equivalents to prophecy, tongues, and first century ideas of faith.  I think this would help clarify this passage we’ve all heard hundreds of times.

Let me tell you what I love.  I love tomato sandwiches made from fresh tomatoes grown out of my parent’s garden.  I love those sandwiches to be made with Duke’s Mayonnaise.  I love grits.  I love bacon prepared in my grandmother’s cast iron frying pan.  I love the understand genius of Conway Twitty.  I love driving by little country churches between here and where I grew up and thinking, “I bet there’s some good preaching going on in there Sunday mornings.”  I love looking off into the distance where a corn field meets the tree line.  I love going to the Waffle House on Friday afternoons when people get off work and listen to them talk about their week so I can shape my prayers.  I love all these things.

However, if I don’t have love for my wife or my family, my grits are tasteless and bland, no matter how much salt and butter I add.  If my love for my wife and family are absent, I won’t hear a word that Bible thumping preacher says.  Without the love of my wife, the frying pan will never be seasoned and the bacon won’t be crispy.  The love for my wife is what makes the flavor of the tomatoes come alive once they’re off the vine.  Kevin and April, love is the greatest gift of all.  It is a big deal.  As you become husband and wife today, I challenge you to think of the most important things in your life.  Ask yourselves, what do you love?   Whatever they are, they’ll never be as meaningful without the others loving presence.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Between You, Me, and The Gatepost

I’m looking for a way to read my own life.  Despite my best efforts, I am unable to find the first chapter, a table of contents, or anything resembling an index.  Life is there, everywhere, in the middle of an unfolding narrative waiting for me to join somewhere along the way.  I can’t go back.  Left, right, and forward are my only options.  God won’t let me go back.  Returning to Egypt was never in the cards for anybody, was it?  God is always out there hovering just below the horizon; unseen to the eye but clearly visible to the naked soul.  It is impossible for me to read my story without reading it in light of God’s story.  I discovered long ago:  one does not make sense without the other.

How can I, in the most theologically sensitive way possible, examine the stories I’ve inherited?  Somewhere along the way, the past ended up in my lap.  Now, gift wrapped in layers of census records, birth certificates, and other information; I’m not sure what to do with what I’ve opened.  As I look around my desk, I hear stories that need to be told.  There are well-traveled roads waiting to be followed.

The Ancestry dot com commercials piqued my interest.  Who doesn’t want to know where they come from?  The question of ancestral legitimacy is central to God’s unfolding drama in the Old Testament.  We are defined by our family bonds and ultimately our relationship to God.  In the Ancestry advertisements, men and women who’ve taken DNA tests (or simply explored their family tree), discover hidden aspects of their heritage.  With this new found information, they feel a new sense of empowerment to dress differently, decorate their homes in new styles, and further embrace their new identity.    Who knows what you’ll find?  You might be related to royalty or George Washington.  The possibilities are endless.

It all begins with your name.  Because others have walked similar ground, you’ll be surprised to find your relatives (grandparents and great-grandparents) are already in the system.  Then you build your tree.  At sixty five names or so, it starts to become clear; you’re related to more people than you ever realized.  The questions start to come: Who were these people?  What did they look like?  Were they like me at all?  Would we recognize similar traits in each other?  Would we get along?

I have to think, at some point, there’s something of me in the names of the dead who are on these 19th century census rolls and marriage certificates.  Somebody was nearsighted, wore glasses, and enjoyed reading.  Most of them were devout Quakers or Methodists.  Their lives revolved around going to church.  We have this in common.  Then I wonder, how much of these men and women is living in me?  This question frightens me.

Although I was born and raised only miles from where most of my ancestors lived and died, I came of age in a different country.  Most of the women and men in my family tree were born and raised in the United States of America when slavery was legal and/or segregation was legal.  This is not the country I know.  We would share a fundamentally different view of what it means to be an American.

My ancestors were farmers and laborers.  They were about as poor as you could be.  They were sharecroppers on good days and subsistence farmers on most days.  I have found no records of anyone I’m related to ever owning a slave.  As Daina Berry of the University of Texas at Austin notes, the value of a slave sold at a high value auction in the late 1850’s (in today’s dollars) would be $33,000-$40,000.  In the 1850 Census, my third great grandfather’s total estate was valued at $350.00 or about $3,000 in today’s currency.  I don’t know their moral position on slavery or slave ownership.  However, I do know they, like most of their neighbors, could not afford to own slaves.

When I started to feel good and at peace with my morally upstanding Quaker and Methodist relatives I began to notice gaps in the information.  My male relatives, third and fourth great grandfathers were notably missing between 1860 and 1865.  After 1865, they resumed having children, were married, and continued with their lives.  I couldn’t ignore the gap.  One by one, I entered their names into the database of Civil War soldiers and sailors maintained by the National Park Service.  Each time, every name, came back with a solid hit.  I am the (great) grandchild of Confederate soldiers.

The names matched with regiments raised in Randolph and Guilford counties.  My fourth great grandfather was at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and then surrendered with Lee at Appomattox.  Another uncle was killed at Chancellorsville.  This was not what I wanted to find.  I was the minister who led the campaign to remove the Confederate battle flag from our local community.  I wanted to find out I was related to Quakers who opposed the Civil War not those who took up arms against the United States.

My ancestors had no stake in slavery, the plantation economy, or the Old South way of life.  Why did they volunteer to fight?  This is what I want to know.  It’s the question I want to ask and it’s the story I think I’m supposed to tell.  What prompts good Christian people to fight and die for something horribly wrong, oppressive, and evil?  What do I do, as a person of faith, who has inherited this story? Is it possible to find redemption, even salvation, in the suffering I’ve discovered?

Jesus lived in a violent world where slavery and war were realities.  His world was much like our own.  In Matthew 10, he tells his disciples that, “Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me.  Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me.  Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow aren’t worthy of me.  Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.”  I’ve set out to discover the hidden parts of my soul.  There are some things I didn’t count on seeing.  However, I realize Jesus’ call on my life extends to the past, present, and future.  If I want to follow Jesus, my love for my family must have limits.   I must be ready to pick up the crosses and lynching trees strewn across four generations.

I won’t discover who I am on a website.  I know this.  I have one story to tell.  It is Jesus’ story.  My story makes no sense unless I tell His first.   Though here’s what I think:  one way to read my life is to be a better neighbor.  I need to know how to be a better neighbor to those around me.  I can do this by understanding the world that has gone before me.  It’s important to know who hurt who, who killed who, who fought who, and why these things happened.  Jesus seemed to say the Kingdom of God is built one day at a time both with stories about King David and the world to come.  The past informs the future.  I’m trying to be better informed about yesterday because there are still plenty of crosses to bear tomorrow.

Richard Lowell Bryant

An Ethic of Friendship

Ocracoke United Methodist Church

Wedding season is here. June, on a beautiful island along North Carolina’s scenic Outer Banks, means weddings. To be honest, I stay fairly busy in weddings throughout the year. Ocracoke’s unspoiled beaches, relative isolation, and natural beauty make it an ideal spot for couples to begin their lives together. Unlike other ministers and churches up and down the Outer Banks, I’m not in wedding business. I don’t run a wedding chapel. My ordination didn’t cost thirty-five dollars and wasn’t downloaded from “getordainednow.com”. Weddings, like baptisms and celebrating and Holy Communion, are an important liturgical part of my ministry. I require at least four sessions of pre-marital counseling. If you’re looking for marriage on the fly; I’m not your guy.

I’ve lost count of the number of weddings I’ve performed. Many of them were dramatic and memorable. Some I will never forget. If I had to guess, it’s got to be pushing one hundred or more services where I’ve officiated at the union of two people in Holy Matrimony. I feel like I know weddings. I’ve seen the whole range of emotions one might find a rehearsal and in the service itself. I’ve seen broken families mended, fistfights, way too many drunken people, and heard 1 Corinthians 13 more times than I’ll ever admit. However, there’s one thing I’ve never done at a wedding. I’ve never been in a wedding.

Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve never been in a wedding; other than my own, as the groom. I’ve never been a groomsman, best man, usher, or anything. Friends of mine (both members of Generation X and Millennials) have participated in wedding after wedding. Some people I know, when summer hits, are still on the wedding circuit well into their thirties.

As I considered the contrast between my professional work and my personal life; some questions came to mind: What my never having been in a wedding says about the friendships I formed during those crucial early years of adulthood? How does my lack of participation from the other side of the altar inform my work behind the pulpit? Were the people I thought to be my friends, those who excluded me from their weddings, really my friends in the first place? Has popular culture created an ethic of friendship which deems participation in a friend’s wedding the greatest honor one friend can do for another? Is friendship something we should be cultivating between husbands and wives not between the friends you ask to watch you get married?  It’s the old Aristotelian question:  friendship of pleasure, utility, and virtue?  Where is the virtue in asking your college roommate to buy a suit or wear a bridesmaid’s dress?

Contrary to popular culture, the friendships we form in late adolescence and youth are shallow. The outgoing president of our annual conference’s youth program admitted as much on Saturday afternoon when he said how many times he’s seen people cry the same tears and pray the same prayers after the same youth events. Our emotions, like our hormones, can be manipulated. It’s part of growing up. Once we’re back in the valley, what do we do with those experiences? How do we contextualize our spiritual encounter with God (and our friends) and put that knowledge to work in the wider world?

For some young people, it comes down to returning to those same places and maintaining those relationships. It’s important to achieve an equivalent spiritual high with the same people. Others, (and I’d say I fall into this second group) have no need to go back. When Thomas Wolfe told me I couldn’t go home again, I believed him.  We got what we needed and are ready to use what we’ve learned without feeling the constant need to recharge and reconnect with the same set of people. Recharging is important but it can be done the way the mystics did it on Iona or John of the Cross did it Spain. There are other ways to meet Abraham’s God.  I don’t know if I’m right or wrong here. I believe once I learned, saw, and encountered the reality of the living Christ I wanted to be in the world with tax-collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. I withdrew, in a sense, because those around me made me uncomfortable.

I liked taking Jesus with people who had no friends and their greatest needs were love, food, and shelter. Those who weren’t my friends welcomed me to their tables. They became my friends.  Much like Troy, in Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, they would ask “Who says that crap?” I would say Jesus Christ. I have been welcomed and blessed by good people in common law marriages. I was honored to share their table. I will tell you the truth: this means more to me than renting a tuxedo and going to any wedding.

I don’t know whether it’s easier for me to talk about love and sacrifice because I’ve never been in a wedding. We live in a world that will break your heart. The other person, the one about to become your “till death do you part” friend, will break your heart. The good news is that we live in a world of grace. It’s hard to see God’s grace at work if you’re only going from wedding to wedding and reception to reception. Grace isn’t readily visible at the happy ending before the closing credits. Grace is the hard work of daily living. I’ve seen grace at work in my life and in the lives of others. Grace is elegant but it’s not beautiful, made up, and picture perfect for a wedding day. Friends who come to a wedding, the best gift you can give your couple: grace to grow.

Yes, popular culture has created a wedding mythology. Whether it’s Bridesmaids, the Hangover, or Wedding Crashers, the media spreads an image of how expensive and elaborate a typical wedding ought to be. Membership in the wedding party is now defined as what it means to be a close friend of the bride or groom. If you participate in this event, you are an intimate, close, personal friend. We know this because movies tell us it must be so.  Have you noticed how much these “best” friends in movies “fight” and “hate” each other?

We want those we love to bless us with their presence when we make promises before God to love and cherish a person for the rest of our lives. Remember, it’s about you. It’s your life. From here on out, you are writing our own script with the person you love. Learn how to love each other. There’s no movie, pattern, or handbook for this. Your friends won’t be of much help.   No one has any easy answers.  It’s the day to day, practical aspects of learning how to love your best friend right beside you that will make all the difference in the world.

So yes, I was in one wedding. The bride asked me to be there. Well, we sort of asked each other.  She is my best friend and my moral compass.  And to quote Winston Groom, “that’s all I have to say about that”.

It’s Almost Time

An Annual Conference Journal

Ocracoke-Preparing for Greenville, NC

Leaving at Dawn on the Swan Quarter Ferry

June 15, 2017

Are you ready for fun?  Have you picked your breakout sessions yet?  I’m having trouble getting my mind around leaving.  It’s not what you think.  I need a break.  Things here will go just fine without me.  A Sunday off will do me a world of good.  For me, it’s much more basic.  My brain hasn’t caught up to the fact it’s Thursday and we’re leaving tomorrow.  To my addled mind, it’s still last Thursday and I’m preparing for weddings which ended in divorce weeks ago.

The ministry, by that I mean, the day to day work of being a pastor, hasn’t helped matters.  Ministry doesn’t stop because you’re going away or even when you empower others to be agents of influence and change.  See what I did there?  I used fancy leadership jargon.  I feel dirty.  It’s a good thing I live near the ocean.  Life happens even when you prepare, plan, and do everything you’re told do before you leave the pulpit for a day, week, month, or year.

At the beginning of the week, a member of our community was swimming in the water of the island.  Derek dove into a shallow spot he didn’t see or expect.  He received extremely serious spinal and neurological injuries.  Derek’s a great guy in the prime of life and in excellent health.  In a moment, it all changed forever.  From Monday afternoon, the enter focus of my week has shifted in trying to care for people asking the most fundamental questions:  Why? What next?  How can we help?

If you’ve read any of these posts over the past few months, you know that we’ve had more than our fair share of evil.  From serious natural disasters, cancer, suicides, shark attacks, domestic abuse, and now a freak accident; hope is taking a beating.  The platitudes and clichés we see on social media fall on deaf ears.  We gathered in the church two mornings ago and waited for a word from God.  We waited in silence.   Names were called, gratitude was offered, the Spirit was thanked, and we waited.  This silence from God is deafening.  I try to hear God in our breathing.  I try to see God in our presence.  We lean on each other’s everlasting arms because that is what we can touch and feel.  When it’s all said and done, we are left waiting.

Derek is in a hospital about five minutes from where annual conference is being held.  Tomorrow afternoon, as soon as I arrive and grab my name tag, I’m leaving the building.  I’m not going to a session, or to say hello to friends, to complain about the budget, or gripe about our position on climate change.  I’m going to see Derek and Callie.  If I’m going to hear God, I don’t think it’s going to be in the opening session of an annual conference.  No one has ever been saved through the effective use of Robert’s Rules of Order.  If God’s around and wants to really move out of the silence, it’s going to happen in a hospital room where doubt and hopelessness have set up shop and refused to be moved.  I’m going to be there, in that room, because I want know: when will the silence end?  Those are questions worth asking.  One day, I’ll tell you how I voted.

Richard Lowell Bryant