Blackout Journal

I’ll be honest with you; it has not been easy. After several days without electricity, civilization begins to collapse. I don’t care how good you believe yourself to be at the pioneer, Henry David Thoreau lifestyle; your neighbors will begin to freak out. At best, the world around you becomes edgy and eerie. At worst, people can become angry and vicious. I’ve seen both. When the food starts to spoil, lack of sleep sets in, you have no information as to when the generators are to arrive, rumors are rife, and the economic livelihood of your entire community has been ruined by an industrial accident; what once seemed quaint becomes a nightmare. This is where I’ve been over the past five days. Maybe you’ve read about it the newspaper or seen something crawl across your screen when watching a cable news channel.  Perhaps you’ve thought, “Wow, I bet those people are hot.”  I thank you for your prayers.  We don’t need your pity.  We do need fans.

I serve a United Methodist congregation 27 miles off the coast of mainland North Carolina. Early Thursday morning, our electrical connection to the 21st century was severed when construction crews building a new bridge further up the Outer Banks severed the three main power cables that feed our barrier islands. Since then, thousands of people were evacuated. My congregation and community, most of whom make their living by serving those who vacation on these islands are staring economic ruin in the face. After Hurricane Matthew’s devastation last fall, we had only begun to recover. Now, under the unavoidable mandatory evacuation, many of our businesses will lay off employees or close for the year. Already, people are worried about paying their rent, house payments, buying food, and medical bills. This is much larger than cancelled vacations. This is an economic disaster for countless people who live on a razor’s edge. This is like closing a steel mill in Ohio or moving a Carrier plant to Mexico.  In our case, we’re surrounded by water in the middle of hurricane season.  Getting help is made all that much harder by our isolation.  Those who want to come back and provide needed cash for our local economy are pushing to do so before adequate repairs are made to our electric infrastructure.  Some visitors are even blaming residents for removing them from the island.  Residents without jobs or electricity-blamed for ruining the vacations of those who only know this as their vacation paradise a few weeks each summer.  This is where I serve the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Yesterday, our congregation held worship outside. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and people just kept coming. In our prayer concerns, we heard of cancer diagnoses and needs well beyond our own inconveniences of the previous few days. We talked of ways to begin feeding and helping our neighbors. It’s what we can do. We don’t need to be told, organized from above, or be instructed on who our neighbors are. Our neighbors are our neighbors; plain and simple. They are men, women, Latino, and Caucasian. Everyone who needs help will be helped.

We are all tired. Our mental health has been strained.  Spiritually, we’re hanging on.  People are crying. For many, the future seems bleak. My parishioners ask, “When will things ever be alright”? It will be weeks before things get back to what the world calls “normal”. Even then, it won’t be normal. Some business may never reopen. The cancer I heard about yesterday will have spread. We keep our eyes open for tropical storms which may make this chaos even worse. Whatever the case, the church will still be here doing what we do, whether we are on the news on or not; whether there is a United Methodist Church or not.   Life is too important to do otherwise.

There’s Something Fishy About This Saying (Matthew 13:47-51)

What was it now, a couple of summers ago, when we had the summer of bread?  It was bread of life this, bread of life that; if I had to hear one more story from John’s Jesus about the bread of life, I was going off bread all together. This year, it’s almost as bad.  We’re in the summer of Matthew’s agricultural parables.  Within the subset of Matthew’s agricultural parables, towards the end of chapter 13, we find parables about small, lost things which also happen to hold great value.  Remember:  these all fall under the broad heading of:  the kingdom of heaven is like “something”.  Jesus is trying to describe the indescribable.  The kingdom is always coming but it’s never quite here.  It’s of this world but nothing like the kingdoms we’re familiar with.  The kingdom is dialectic.  It exists in the tension between our expectations and the reality God has already defined.  Every parable, saying, and story Jesus tells is an attempt to explain this dialectic.  We expect the kingdom to be one thing while God has already said, “our expectations in no way match the reality of the kingdom”.  We are caught in the middle between what we think the kingdom is and the reality Jesus wants to convey.  Above all, we realize, the kingdom is not just a place, it is a way of life.

Take a look at his audience of possible kingdom dwellers.  To whom is he speaking?  Is this his base?  Maybe, maybe not; in one way or another they all seem to have a degree of familiarity with Jesus.  From the stories he tells, we can guess:  he’s talking to farmers, women, agricultural workers, day laborers, merchants, and even Pharisees.  Jesus doesn’t waste words or subjects of parables.  Each one of these vignettes, no matter how short, is designed to be heard by a specific audience.  Jesus is a master of messaging.  He tells stories about the kingdom of God being like a woman, a merchant, and a farmer because he wants those in his audience to know:  everyone has a place in the kingdom of God. This is why I find inclusive language debates in our own era rather silly.  Jesus went out of his way to be inclusive in his speech and language.  Who among us would like to accuse the son of God of being a politically correct liberal?  I can think of several people on radio and television who might.

Each of these five parables targets one demographic however; we’re all listening.  Jesus’ message transcends and reaches everyone if we will only listen.  There’s something in the mix for everyone.

Farmers and fisherman (tradespersons) made up the majority of those who followed Jesus’ ministry.  While they all couldn’t leave their farms or boats, many did and journeyed with Jesus around Galilee.  These men and women networked with other farmers and fishermen, urging them to come and hear the Rabbi from Nazareth.  You might even call them “community organizers”.  Going ahead into the community, they would spread the world about Jesus’ arrival.  That’s why, on a day like today; you’ve got such a diverse group.  Between Jesus’ reputation and his team of disciples and organizers, crowds get large.  He preached from boats and atop high hills.

How can heaven be so small?  That’s the tension with which we context in the first kingdom statement Jesus directs toward farmers.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  Mustard seeds are among the smallest of seeds.  Despite its potential for growth (with the right care and conditions), how can heaven have ever been something ever been anything other than all expansive and all encompassing?  Not so, says Jesus.  The kingdom of heaven is so inconsequential that if you’re not paying attention, if you’re careless, or not looking, you will miss it or discard it altogether.  Heaven is easy to overlook.  The potential contained within the kingdom of God is easy to ignore, discount, and discredit.  What can a God who arrives in such an inconsequential manner do to impact our Earth shattering realities?  The kingdom of God can be planted, made part of our lives, nurtured, and formed into a partnership with humanity.  Mustard seeds grow when they are cared for in a partnership with people.  The kingdom of God doesn’t grow in isolation.  God doesn’t just happen. Mustard trees do not grown own their own.  There’s no such thing as trickle down growth when it comes to Mustard Seeds in the kingdom of God.  Someone has to help plant and care for the seed, even though the seed is blessed with the spark of Divinity and the presence of Almighty God.  The seed needs to be planted by one of us.  Life cannot share in the blessings of life if we don’t help to enable life.

The next three kingdom statements are short but similar to the first. Size matters.  What we think ought to be large, like the Death Star or Buckingham Palace, or Caesar’s Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem, isn’t.  Yeast is of less size and consistency that a mustard seed.  A treasure, what is a treasure?  Do you imagine Blackbeard’s treasure?  A treasure could be anything of value.  It could be a single coin.  Given the context (one of the most important words when dealing with Jesus and his stories), do you believe Jesus meant an 18th century treasure chest or something completely different?  I’m going to vote for something small and completely different.  It might even be a single pearl; one tiny pearl worth prioritizing everything else in your life so that only this pearl matters.

The kingdom of heaven possesses an imperceptible, hidden value until we interact with it in the right way, at the right time, and in the right place-the kitchen, the garden, or the property sale; whatever the case may be. The kingdom of heaven is a partnership with both the tangible and the intangible (there’s the dialectic again!). The kingdom of heaven depends on us, interacting with people, on God’s behalf, at the right time and place, in small ways, is that what you’re saying.  That’s not what I’m saying; it’s what Jesus is saying.  This enterprise we’ve come to call Christianity isn’t about Jesus as a dictator.  The miracle moving these parables forward is this: if we’re not actively engaged with what we might otherwise discredit or ignore; the kingdom of heaven doesn’t function the way Jesus intended.

The last kingdom of heaven comparison is the longest of the five.  Here’s where things get strange.  I need to tell you up front.  I don’t like this comparison.  I wish he’d stopped with the Pearl of Great Price.  However, it’s there so let’s deal with it.  Jesus’ earliest and most loyal followers had been peasant fisherman and farmers. Fishing examples were his stock in trade.  As we’ve seen with all of the previous examples, everything about the kingdom of heaven exists in tension with itself.  Things are seen but unseen.  Others are large but small.  Items of value appear worthless.  This tension isn’t quite as obvious in Jesus’ last illustration.  In this story, there are many fish.  The value of the fish is not in dispute.  That many fish could be sold for lots of money.  Fish were a valuable commodity.  You know this.  You catch fish then you sell them for top denarius.  Your family can buy its own food.  No one doubts the premise of Jesus’ story.  They know the lake (the Sea of Galilee), the boats, the nets, and can envision a catch like this of their own.  Unlike the minimalist vision of the kingdom of God in the other sayings, Jesus is going large.

Those nets, they catch a lot of fish.  Matthew says all kinds of fish.  I love that.  I’m big on diversity.  Here’s how I read that:  the kingdom of God is all encompassing. We all get caught up in the net. That should be comforting.  God catches us and brings us safely into the boat.  (Until you realize the fish get eaten.)  Everyone and everything is part of the largeness of the kingdom of God.  In one fell swoop, we’re brought out of the water and onto the boat.  There’s no differentiation.  We are whatever the net takes.  This is us.  Then we are taken to the shore for sorting.

I told you it became uncomfortable.  What’s the sorting business?  The fish, minding their own business, fish of all different shapes, sizes, and varieties were brought to the boat to be in the kingdom of heaven.  Apparently it’s not enough to be swooped up and live happily ever after in the kingdom of God.  Someone has to die.  Death needed to be introduced into the equation.  Apparently, being caught up in the kingdom of heaven puts your life at risk.

The fish didn’t know they were good or bad, imbued with morality of any kind, until they were caught and brought to the shore.  Evidently, now that they’re on shore, they are fish to which qualities of good and evil can be attached.  Moments before, they were all fish, living together in relative harmony under water.  Now some are good and some are bad.  Is that us, one day we’re good and the next day, for no good reason we’re sorted into the bad?  The Good fish are saved into containers.  The bad fish are thrown away.  I told you, I don’t like this version of the kingdom of heaven.

Here’s where Jesus looses me.  He says, “This is how it will be at the end of the present age.”  I’m sorry.  Some people will be discarded and thrown away like dead fish?  You have got to be kidding me, Jesus?  Nope, he’s not kidding.  Angels will go around separating the righteous from the evil people.  The evil ones will end up in a furnace.  The only thing the fish did to deserve sorting into “good and evil” was being pulled from the sea.  There were no objective ways to measure their righteousness or unrighteousness.  How can it be with us the same way at the end of the age?  How can it be with humanity, that we are hauled into God’s kingdom and sorted into piles of predetermined goodness with no consideration given to anything other than random chance?

Jesus asks, “Have you understood all these things?”  Yes, Jesus, I understand.  I understand that if I follow your similes and sayings to their logical end, I’ve got a 50/50 chance of going to heaven or hell, no matter how I live or what I do.  Mustard seeds and pearls be damned, if I’m thrown into the wrong pile out of the net, nothing I’ve done will matter to you or your angels.

People are too important to discard.  I know you know this Jesus.  And besides, when is the last time we welcomed a new United Methodist because they were afraid of being thrown into a fiery furnace?  It’s never happened to me.

Jesus, I understand scaring people with the idea of burning in Hell forever is stupid and counterproductive.   Let’s leave these verses on the ash heap of history.

We Deny God

On Friday evening, I read the Institute for Religion and Democracy’s submission to this week’s gathering of the Commission On A Way Forward. Nothing in their report surprised me. While the rest of the United Methodist Church is engaged in a process of honest dialogue and trying to find a “way forward”, their position appears to have changed little or even hardened since the previous General Conference.

They advance the idea that many of their supporters believe the Commission On A Way Forward is a liberal plot. In addition, they continue to threaten schism (with the support of the central conferences). In tone, it read like a ransom letter of a kidnapper holding an entire denomination hostage.  Honestly, they should be ashamed of themselves.

So much was left unsaid. This troubles me more than their threats, selective use of Biblical quotations, and citations from the Book of Discipline. Despite our varying interpretations of scripture, picking and choosing which sins are worse than others in 21st century Methodism, and allowing those voices to run our denominations: the IRD still seems to believe homosexuality is a choice. Biologically speaking, those who are pushing for schism do not believe men and women are born straight or gay. They began their report professing their love for their gay brothers and sisters. However, if you read through their statement, it’s clear they believe those whom they love (their gay family and friends) are choosing to remain in a sinful lifestyle. By making this choice, these persons are made ineligible from any leadership (ordained or otherwise) in the United Methodist Church.

In entertaining the possibility of a different choice, they are negating the possibility that God creates people who are straight, gay, bisexual, black, white, or simply different from each other. If we are different we must choose to conform to accepted standards of behavior that are not ordained by God but created by other sinful United Methodists pretending to act in the name of God. This is the point where the train we call church is about to derail.

I deny their cookie cutter God. Their God is dead to me. Their God makes heterosexual Methodists. Their God is the God of press releases and knee jerk “Amens”. Their God stokes fears which never existed. Their God needs fear and money to survive.

The God I worship calls everyone to ministry, to serve, and to love. The way forward must acknowledge God made a world embedded with evolutionary difference and creative diversity. When we deny this, we deny God.

Richard Bryant

God Only Knows (Genesis 28:10-19 and Psalm 139)

One of the greatest love songs ever written begins with these words, “I may not always love you”.  The writer continues, “I’ll make you so sure about it.  God only knows what I’d be without you.”  How do you start, perhaps the greatest love song of the 20th century, with an acknowledgment of amorous doubt?  It would seem to be counter-intuitive to whole idea of a love song.  Brian Wilson was a musical genius in his ability to blend sounds, notes, and compose melodies.  He also understood a little something about poetry.

The first line of the song is not a statement of doubt.  The song’s title isn’t an expression of exasperation.  This love song, which you’ve heard hundreds of times, is more like a Psalm and prayer, than a Top 40 hit.  Why?  The first line and the title do two important things also shown by our scripture readings this morning:  one is an admission of vulnerability.  The other is an awareness of God’s presence.  Vulnerability and awareness: if we want to be fully aware of God’s presence it means becoming vulnerable.  For instance, I may not always love you (that makes me pretty vulnerable to admit this) but by acknowledging that I’m unable to love now or even into eternity without God, my inherently flawed promises are less important.  They are, however, backed by the full faith and credit of the creator of the universe.  My vulnerability, nor my promises, exists in isolation.  That’s what Wilson says.

It is much the same way for Jacob.  Most of know Jacob’s story the same we know the Beach Boys; we grew up listening to his song.  “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder; soldiers of the cross.”  You’ve been singing that one since before you heard “Help Me, Rhonda”.  However, when we look closely, there’s much more to this story than a ladder or stairway to heaven.

Jacob is a man on the run from time itself:  the past, present, and future.  At one point, Jacob thought very little of his family and friends.  He robbed his brother of the most precious gift he might ever receive, his birthright.  Lie begat lie.  Jacob was an outlaw among a displaced people. Physically, he belonged nowhere.  Spiritually, he was disconnected from the God of his father and grandfather. His past was dead, the present was dying, and the future would not exist.  The only way to survive was to keep moving toward whatever existed beyond the horizon.  Fight those in your path.  In stopping, he risked death.

Sleep was his greatest enemy. At night, when the memories of Isaac and Esau could not be banished and his legs were too weak to move, he hid in the darkness; among the rocks.  When Jacob stopped he became vulnerable.  When Jacob could no longer walk he became vulnerable.  Sleep and rest opened the door to Jacob’s greatest vulnerability.

The dream, the one with the famous ladder, isn’t hard to interpret.  Jacob is most vulnerable when is when he’s confronted with the idea of being related and connected to other people.  That’s Jacob’s issue.   In the dream, God speaks to him about descendants, springing forth from the dust.  God promises to protect Jacob and those descendants.  Jacob is the consummate loner.  This dream touches him at his most vulnerable point.  He wants to be connected.  Jacob desires community, fellowship, and family.  But he can’t!  He’s burned those bridges.  Yes he has.  They are well and truly burned.

However, here is the good news.  At our weakest and most vulnerable points, this is where we become aware of God’s presence.  God is already present and involved in our lives.  Until we acknowledge our vulnerability, our need to be completely open about who we are with the world and God; it’s hard to realize (or accept) God is messing around in your world.

Look at what Jacob says when he awakes.  For me, this is the most important part of this story.  It’s a verse I see repeated in my life time and time again.  “The Lord is (present tense) definitely in this place but I didn’t know it.”  He became aware of God’s presence and admitted, “I didn’t know it”.  Have you ever walked away from an encounter like this?  I’ve never walked away from brush or encounter with the divine where it wasn’t preceded by a feeling of intense vulnerability.  God should throw us off balance, make us a little nervous, cause some butterflies in our stomach, and leave you feeling a little stunned.  When you find yourself opening up in a conversation to a stranger then you ask yourself, “I don’t what happened?”  Maybe that was a God moment?  God is in the place, are you aware?

The Bible thinks and speaks clearly about the most powerful human emotions.  Vulnerability and awareness are essential for maintaining healthy communities as well as seeing God at work in the world around us.  It’s also evident in this morning’s Psalm.  Doesn’t it seem like the Psalmist is writing directly to us?

Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Can there be a greater acknowledgement of our vulnerability?  “You have searched me and known me”.  God knows us in our totality.  Before God, nothing is hidden.  God is aware of every aspect of our lives.  Even before we speak, God knows our thoughts.  The more God knows about us, the more God is aware of our lives.  Awareness is care, awareness is love.  For the Psalmist, even for me, this is overwhelming.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

As Jacob realized, at our most vulnerable, when we are sleeping, God is present and aware.  Here’s where God’s idea of vulnerability becomes visionary. The Psalmist says that God becomes vulnerable for us.  Yes, vulnerability is central to our awareness of God’s presence in our lives.  The Psalmist takes this vision one step further.  God becomes vulnerable for us.  We worship a vulnerable God.  A God, who, if we make our bed in Sheol (hell) is already in hell waiting to bring us home.  This is a God who will wait for us in hell.

God becomes vulnerable for us.  What’s more vulnerable than a baby born in a stable? What’s more vulnerable than an innocent put to death?  What was it the Roman centurion said, after Jesus died, when confronted with Jesus’ vulnerability?  He became aware of the presence of God.

When we allow ourselves, like Jacob and Psalmist to open up and be vulnerable to God’s presence in our lives, we will discover something:  God is in the place and we didn’t even know it.

God embraced vulnerability for us.  To do the same seems the least we can do for God.

5 Points About the Unfolding Future

1. Methodism is broken.  We can’t fix Methodism by doubling down on the ideas which made Methodism relevant and vibrant in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

2. Does United Methodism need to fixed?  Living broken is better than living dead.  Remember Parker Palmer’s rule:  No fixing.

3. Our brokenness doesn’t stop us from being faithful to Jesus Christ. Christ claims our brokenness. Being broken is being human.  Dignity is found is embracing brokenness.

4. No one is going on to perfection.   Eternity, whatever it is, will be more than an 18th century Anglican or 21st United Methodists can imagine.

5. Is it possible to be a faithful follower John Wesley and a disciple of Jesus Christ?  Are the two mutually exclusive?  Maybe.