Unpopular Opinion: Is This How Civilization Collapses?

Between our power outage on the Outer Banks and Hurricane Harvey I’ve been thinking:  How is civilization going to end?  I don’t mean, “How is the world going to end?”  A pandemic or asteroid will answer that question.  My query is more along the line of Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.  How is American Civilization (and Western civilization for that matter) going to collapse?

We saw some civilizational collapse during Hurricane Katrina and we’re seeing it on larger scale with Hurricane Harvey (simply due to the size of the storm).  A window to the future has opened and we’ve received a snapshot of what has yet to be.  This is what it will look like.  Perhaps, this is what it is.  Maybe it’s not a dystopian glimmer of what’s coming.  Is it what it appears to be, the present?

I believe we’ve reached a point of no return.  And from this precipice, no single factor is going to push us over the edge.  The uneven distribution of wealth in society, the environment, and competition for natural resources (just to name a few) are all working together to do us in.  Like ancient Rome, our empire is stretched too thin while fighting unwinnable guerrilla wars in places Alexander the Great couldn’t hold.

The economic stratification in America and throughout Western Europe is unsustainable.  Concentrated wealth in a small percentage of individuals and corporations will eventually lead to more of the present:  unaffordable lives.  Rents will be too high to pay, illnesses unable to be treated, food to expensive to be bought, and children to expensive to be raised.   Work will not be done because no one will be able to afford the basic necessities of life to do any work.

The resources allocated to the poor are not enough to maintain the basic underpinnings of the economy.  Given the impact of a massive economic and environmental disaster, civilization could collapse quickly; especially when the military we depend on to maintain law and order is fighting terrorists in Pakistan, not filtering water or flying missions in Houston.  At some point the legions of volunteers will return to work in their own communities, for their own economic well-being.  In a nation drowning in debt, addicted to a sixteen year war in Afghanistan, and afraid to address health care reform; how are we not on the verge of societal collapse?  The answer to that question is usually, “because neighbors still help neighbors”.  When the food runs low and the guns are drawn, the line between looting and scavenging disappears.  It’s good to see people helping people.  It’s also hard to argue with the math when you can’t pay the bills.

As recovery efforts begins, we are about to witness competition for limited environmental and economic resources.  Land will be inhabitable.  Jobs will be scarce.  Some people will never go back to the homes they once knew.  Refugee populations will be resettled across America.  Germany knows what this is like.  Bosnia’s experienced this. America’s new to the internally displaced people game.

Nothing will ever be the same again.  More hundred year storms will come next year and the following year.  The military guarding our streets will become a permanent fixture in American society.  Let’s pray there’s not another housing crisis akin to the one in 2008.

The death spiral which ended with Rome’s collapse at the hands of the Visigoths didn’t begin in 410 AD.  It was a long, slow ride.  The questions for me are this:  Where are we on our ride?  How much longer?  Is it me, or is it getting faster?

Richard Lowell Bryant

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You Are A Boat and Rescuer All in One

I’ve watched these epic rescues on television. I’m sure you’ve seen them as well. Some of them are by helicopter but most of them are volunteers who have boats that are going to help their neighbors. It’s been a truly heroic effort. We should all be inspired.

Here’s what I want to tell you: you too can be a rescuer. You don’t have to take a boat and go to Houston. There are people all around us who are drowning. It may be sickness, depression, family issues, or other problems. The specifics don’t matter to the rescuer. We know they are drowning. People need help. We can see it in their faces, we read their social media posts, and we hear the despondency in their voices. We can throw them a lifeline. Your smile, hug, or listening ear can save a life. Seek out those who’ve retreated to the attics and isolated corners of their lives. Be a rescuer right here, right now.  You can give to the ongoing need in Houston and help right where you live.

If you want to make your life a rescue boat and become a rescuer today, here’s what you can do in your community right now:

1) Listen. Sometimes silence is better than trying to scrape together words that don’t match the gravity of the situation.

2) Don’t look for a silver lining. There may not be one. Sometimes reality stinks. Being present with other people who are suffering is the essence of the incarnation. Let that stand for something.

3) Scripture says it’s OK to cry and acknowledge our sadness and loss. If that’s where you are then be in that place. This is part of the healing process.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Yes, In World War II Documentaries They Keep Covering the Holocaust

Yesterday,  my wife was at her job in the local public library.  Someone returned a multi-volume DVD set about the history of World War II.  Called “The World at War”, it’s a seminal work in documentary film-making.  The twenty-six episode series looks a bit dated now but it is still one of the best I’ve ever seen.  Recorded in the late 1960’s and early 70’s (when many of the participants were still relatively young men), it was first broadcast in 1973-74 on ITV in the United Kingdom. The narrator was none other than Sir Laurence Olivier.  They interviewed everyone they could find from top to bottom.  From the grunts in the trenches to the scientists who made the first Atomic bombs.  As war documentaries go, it’s the gold standard.  Germans, Japanese, Americans, and Holocaust survivors talked for hours.

The guy who returned it didn’t like it.  Here’s how she recounted the conversation.  She shared this because it was a little unnerving.

He said, “It won’t no good”.  “It won’t about WW2, it was all about Jews! Every other scene they would come back to the Jews!”  It’s as this point he saw the look of horror on her face.  “Now, I have empathy for them but that wasn’t all it was about!”  If you were in Auschwitz or Buchenwald, that was certainly what it was all about.

Jewish communities all over Europe, in the east and the west, were destroyed.  Yes, all encompassing war documentaries do return time and time again to the death of six million Jews in the death camps of Europe.  We were taught in homiletics that every sermon we preach is, in one way or another, delivered in the shadow of Auschwitz.   How is it possible to preach the goodness of God in the face of such horrific evil?  The Holocaust is hard to avoid.

Why do people fear the rise of fascism in America? It is because ordinary people appear so cavalier about the greatest evil in the 20th century.  It happened too easily in a place no one ever predicted; where everyone believed they had empathy for one another.  We have reason to be concerned.  Right now, despite what you’re seeing in Texas, American empathy is in short supply.   Would neighbors love neighbors without a Category 4 hurricane?  That’s the test of Christian love.

I’ve walked through death camps.  I’ve stood in the place where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed.  I’ve been to the Holocaust Museums in Jerusalem and Washington.  We cannot say these two words enough:  never again.  We must never forget.

Now, it’s my job to reach out to this man and invite him to church.  I’d like to introduce him to the Rabbi I keep coming back to week after week.  His name is Jesus and I love him.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Unpopular Observations on Blessings

1. The word “blessing” has lost all meaning. Watching the coverage of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding in Houston, I’ve seen a further deterioration of an already overused word.

2. For example, “We are so blessed. My Street isn’t flooded but the cross streets all around me are.” Or, “I am blessed that I made it out alive. There are still hundreds of people back there who are stranded, hungry, and needing to be saved.” Neither of these statements (both of which I heard) indicates a blessing or being blessed. They are observations of sheer luck.

3. Statements like this (and countless others) carry with it one flawed implication: God blessed you and you alone. The people around you were left out of the blessing.  How do you account for that?  How does that make God look? It makes God look petty, mean, and like God plays favorites. Why did you deserve the blessing of the dry street? Why did you warrant the blessing of survival while others wait on their roofs for boats yet to arrive? Where is their blessing? You got yours. You were blessed.

4. We confuse blessings with luck. We confuse blessings with most anything that goes our way.  We are just confused.

An Honest Hurricane Harvey Prayer

 

Hurricane Harvey Prayer
August 27th, 2017

Gracious God,
We come before you this morning with hearts burdened by grief, our eyes heavy with tears, and uncertainties all around. As this storm as comes ashore in Texas and Louisiana, we feel a connection with those who are suffering. We pray this morning for those who are dealing with death and destruction on an unprecedented level.

We pray it were not so.
We pray for a world where such storms do not exist.
We pray that nature was not erratic, unpredictable, and evil.
We pray that the lives of hard working people were not randomly destroyed by floods, wind, and rain.
We pray that you, God, would exercise more control over the planet we call home; so innocent people won’t die in hurricanes.
We pray for those who risk their lives to save lives amidst the erratic and violent world these storms set into motion.
We are saddened that death begets more death in these tragedies.
We pray that you would stop this, now.
Seriously God, stop this destruction now.  You’re better than this.

Amen.

Richard Bryant
Ocracoke UMC

Unpopular Opinions for August 26th, 2017

1. What good is a 20 minute sermon on loving one’s neighbor (or other specifics of Jesus’ teachings) when many in our congregations have spent Monday to Friday as disciples of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity learning a vocabulary of fear and reasons to despise others?

2. After hours of daily radio broadcasts plus television with Tucker Carlson in the evening, how can the church of Jesus Christ present a different way to look at reality when so many people attend the Church of Fox News (and its offshoots)? Jesus, preachers, and mainline Christianity can’t do it.  We’ve lost this battle.

3. A Christian worldview contrasts from a Sean, Rush, Tucker, Fox News, or Breitbart worldview. A Christian worldview is incompatible with most of the dominant American consumerist culture.

4. Here’s the answer to the first question; it does no good. If our sermons don’t echo sentiments or reinforce ideas in line with what millions of people are hearing from their weekday Sunday School lessons from Rush or Sean, people will leave our churches and take their money.  It’s already happening. It goes by other names (opposition homosexual clergy and gay marriage) but this is what we’re witnessing. Jesus following isn’t a popularity contest.  We can’t argue with people who are convinced they’ll be waving to us from Heaven on our way to Hell.

5. Will those who remain in our churches do the hard work of preaching the Good News or just complain about their neighbors? I’m not certain. Jesus was willing to die. Memes are far easier to post.

6.  Love is hard.  We can love harder.  Be a living sermon.

Richard Lowell Bryant

One of These Things Is Not Like The Other (Matthew 16:13-20)

If I’ve seen one internet meme or heard one person say a variation on this statement, “if as many people were talking about heroin addiction, God, (insert other vital national issue) as we are the eclipse or Confederate statues, maybe we’d be better off,” I’ve heard a hundred.  The presupposition of such memes is that America and Americans can’t multi-task morality.  We forget we beat the Germans and the Japanese at the same time.   There’s also an underlying theme that some issues, from one person’s perspective, are more important than another.  From one perspective, your issues are simply wrong.  From another perspective, your issues are historic and under addressed.  There’s no set criteria who gets to be the person who gets to make the “that’s the more important issue” or what criteria is used.  You need only have a Facebook page and an opinion.  It becomes an individual, case by case, recipe of condemnation and wrongness.

Here’s what I’ve noticed within all of these discussions:  whether they are trying to take the high road (if we would only talk about things other than the eclipse), the middle road (statues don’t matter), or the real road (we need to confront our past), very few people are talking about Jesus.  Lots of people are talking about politics, God, religion, and Christianity.  Jesus’ name is hardly mentioned and rarely invoked.   Jesus, a man I’m certain wouldn’t be into statues of himself.  Jesus, a man who discouraged his followers from engaging violence with those who opposed him, is rarely mentioned by name.

Think, for a moment, how rarely we talk about the specifics of Jesus’ message and Jesus the person.  Of all the good things we do as a church, congregation, and a denomination; we don’t make Jesus sound like the kind of guy you would to have a cup of coffee with, drink a beer with, go fishing with, or hang out with on a Sunday afternoon.  Jesus’ identity, Jesus’ normalcy, as I call it, is in the Bible, but we’d rather argue with atheists about whether the world was created in six days.  What is going to bring people back to church?

Why is this?  I think it’s because we love talking about Jesus.  We love talking to Jesus.  I’m not sure how well we know Jesus.  We know Paul because he’s got the dramatic conversion story.  But Jesus, he’s the carpenter who became a teacher.  Let me put this in post-modern, millennial technological terms:  We see all Jesus’ posts on Facebook, we see everything he’s posting, we occasionally comment on his pictures; we talk like he’s our best friend, but in reality, is there a relationship?  Do you get invited to actual his birthday party or do you throw one in his honor, every Christmas and hope he’ll show up?

Jesus wasn’t even certain how well his own disciples, walking with him on the dusty roads of first century Galilee knew him.  The closer he came to Jerusalem, he wanted to know, “do the people I’m with understand my work and do the people I’m reaching understand what I’m doing?”  In one respect, Jesus is being retrospective.  Has it been worth it?  Have I been wasting my time and effort?  Is this doing any good at all?  That’s part of what he’s asking.  Secondly, he honestly wants to know, how do the people see him.  Who do they understand him to be?

I believe Peter is caught off guard by the question; just as we are.  Step back for a second and look at the strangeness of the answer.  “Some say, John the Baptist, other Elijah, and still other Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.”  First, according to Peter, among the earliest followers of Jesus, there is no consensus as to who Jesus is.  Jesus, according to the wisdom of the masses, must be someone else.  He can’t be who he is.  He has to be someone else.  He must be easily classified into one of these four categories or we do not know what to do with him.  Four established and well known categories at that!  Did you notice “Jesus” wasn’t one of their choices? This is who the people say Jesus is.

Could they be anymore wrong?  Jesus couldn’t possibly be Jesus.    They won’t let be Jesus.  Are there times when we won’t let Jesus be Jesus?  Do we leave Jesus out our moral equations altogether?  Even when we try to identify Jesus, we don’t listen to his message.  We tune out or talk over him. His words, so clear and distinct from each of the four prophets to whom he is compared, to us sound vaguely religious, inspirational, and prophetic.  For the crowd, Jesus is a distinction without a difference.  If you’ve seen one prophet, you’ve heard them all.

Like Jesus’ early followers, I’m not sure we know what makes Jesus distinctive.  I’m not sure we care why he stands apart and above from John the Baptizer, Jeremiah, Elijah and others.  We cannot effectively embody Jesus’ teaching unless we understand this difference.  Jesus’ identity is different from these other prophets because his message is different.  The Sermon on the Mount is not the 10 commandments.  Jesus didn’t preach words that grated like sandpaper in isolation like John.  Jesus never worked at a royal palace.  Jesus lived and moved among ordinary people.  Jesus’ message and his means of delivering the message were different.  Jesus is a new category.

Next, Jesus flips the script.  He asks Peter the same question.  Jesus wants to know who the disciples believe him to be.  “You’ve told me about the people, those who come to the sermons and healings but what you guys, who do you really think I am?”  Now Jesus puts them on spot.  Peter’s sweating bullets.

From the moment Jesus asked the first question about the crowds, I can imagine Peter rehearsing his answer, over and over in his mind, hoping Jesus would ask him this question.  I see Peter as that kind of guy.  He likes to impress the boss.   He says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  Bingo!  Peter got it right.  Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, for you figured this out for yourself”.  That’s my translation.  Jesus pats Peter on the back for getting it, intuitively, from witnessing everything he’s seen (miracles, teaching, healings,) and saying this can be nothing other than what it is.

Peter came to the conclusion that Jesus was who he said he was from being in Jesus’ presence and observing Jesus being Jesus.  In doing that, he saw that Jesus could be nothing other than who he said he was.  That’s important enough to restate:  we come to know Jesus’ identity by being in Jesus presence, seeing Jesus do Jesus things, and realizing that this can be none other than what it is.

It’s Sunday morning, the Resurrection is always occurring, and where do we come to know Jesus identity by being in Jesus presence?  It starts right here:  in the sanctuary.  Our first step is to come to this place.  The second step is to go back into the world.  The third step is to ask ourselves (then each other) Jesus’ question: who do we say Jesus is?  We need to talk more about Jesus.  It’s not “What Would Jesus Do, but how does Jesus enter into lives we live and the conversations we inhabit. The fourth step is to see Jesus’ presence by doing things as Jesus did them, emulate his words, actions, and deeds.  The fifth step is to then realize, Jesus can be none other than Jesus.  Bring that love back home to this place next Sunday, so we can send it out into the world and do it again.