No More, No Less (Exodus 33:12-23)

How much of anything can we see?  We only see what our eyes perceive.  Our ability to see and understand is limited by our ability to see and our brain’s ability to comprehend what we see.

For example, let’s take the ocean.  Let’s all go down to the beach, on a clear day like today, and look out across the waves toward the horizon.  What do we see?  There’s the ocean as far as the eye can take you.  The clouds go into the sky.  The sand stops at the water’s edge.  As we gaze forward, there might be a boat, a bird, or a plane.  More often than not, there’s nothing.  The vast expanse of the sky blends into the ocean.  From where we stand, this looks like, “this is all there is”.  We know this isn’t true.  Despite the fact it’s a beautiful day with unlimited visibility, our eyes work pretty good (some of us have glasses), we know that beyond the horizon there’s more water, more land, and even more people.  Because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.  They are there.  We only see a portion of the world around us.

Advance the clock by twelve hours.  Sometimes what I’m talking about is a little easier to grasp in the dark.  The clear morning at the beach has become a clear sky evening.  Blessed as we are with little light pollution, on such evenings we can look up and see Milky Way.  The galaxy looks immense.  On a clear night, as I’m describing, you can see thousands, maybe even millions of stars.  The few million stars we see are billions of miles away.  In just a quick glance, we are seeing the tiniest of tiny slivers of the galaxy and the larger universe.  From our vantage point on Earth, this is all we are able to see.  We will never see any more.  Sure, you can move to the southern hemisphere or the South Pole and you’ll see a different set of stars.  But that set of starts you’re seeing at the South Pole or in Auckland, New Zealand is as small as the ones we see on Life Guard Beach.   No matter where we look, we can only see the smallest fraction of the known universe.  From where we are, minus the telescopes, billion dollar budgets, a friendship of Elon Musk, rocket engines, spacecraft, and high tech equipment (I’m talking just us):  this is as much of the universe and space as we will ever encounter.  And that’s ok.  We still know space is there.  We have a relationship with the world beyond Earth even though we’ve never been past the atmosphere.  We understand a great deal about the universe solely from observing the tiny sliver of eternity hanging over our heads.

You go to the beach and you realize:  you are not alone.  You’re seeing a small portion of a much bigger ocean.  At night, the stars above your head are but a fraction of an ancient reality older than the idea of keeping time.  This is what happens to Moses in today’s scripture when he encounters God.  It happens to us and sometimes we don’t even know it.

Moses is friends with God.  God loves Moses.  Moses is under tremendous pressure.  He coming up with plans, ideas, and activities to keep his people interested as they journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Sometimes they become distracted and don’t listen.  Over the past couples of weeks, we’ve heard stories about Moses bringing the 10 Commandments down and while he was away meeting with God the people became impatient and started worshiping a Golden Cow.  He frustrated.  Moses wants God to help him.  Long ago, well before they left Egypt, God promised to be by Moses side, to be his friend and partner on this journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Right now, Moses feels like he’s doing most of the heavy lifting on his own.

God wants to remind Moses:  you are not alone.  I am with you and by your side.  Often times, we don’t see the friends walking right beside us or realize that others are there to help.  Look to your left and right, behind you and in front, what do you see?  You see other people, don’t you?  The other people looking at you see you!  God has placed these people beside you, alongside your path, for your journey.  Who knows where you’re headed?  God does and God has sent people to walk with us.  God is with and within the people all around us.  But sometimes our perspective limits our ability to see God at work, God being present, of God helping us out right beside us.  Sometimes the beach just looks like the beach.  We forget we’re looking at the Atlantic Ocean and on the other side of that ocean are other continents and people.  Our vision of what God can do is limited by where we stand and sit and by the habits we fall into.  In this passage today, God is trying to change the way Moses’ sees reality.

Moses wants reassurance and God wants to give it Moses.  Here’s how Moses puts it, “Because how will anyone know that we have your special approval, both I and you people unless you go with us? Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on earth?” Moses is saying, “We want to know that you are with us.  We need to know that this thing we’re doing is real.”

We’ve all had that conversation with God at one point or another.  It might have been on the beach, under a nighttime sky, or even before a test at school.  You’ve turned to God and said, “I’m with you and I need some sort of idea that you’re with me.  Is this journey we’re on, this pilgrimage we’re walking, or this life we’re leading the real thing?” That’s a God 101 kind of question.  This isn’t the type of question you ask over a cup of Earl Grey on your back porch.  Moses isn’t treating God like a book he pulls out of the back of the pew once a week to read for comfort and good words.  Moses is saying, I want to take this book with me everywhere I go.

How does God answer Moses’ question?  What does he say that will confirm, “Yes, this is the real thing”?  Interesting enough, it’s the same thing that happens to us when we go to the beach on a beautiful day or look up at the sky on a clear night.

First of all, God says that God’s outward actions through Moses will be based in kindness and compassion.  As Moses is kind and compassionate, God will kind and compassionate.  People will see a kind and compassionate God through our kindness and compassion.  Doesn’t that sound like something Jesus might say? God’s goodness will be reflected through the way we treat other people.  If you (or the world for that matter) want to see God, embody these qualities.  Do these things and treat people with kindness and compassion.  God is saying, “I can best be seen in my people by those people acting kindly and compassionately toward others.”  No statues, cows, or idols.   Try being nice, God says.  It so simple, it’s hard to believe.  That’s the first thing.  That’s why I wanted you to look around.  God is the kindness and compassion of those who surround you.

Secondly, God tells Moses that God will reveal God’s presence to Moses.  Here’s the catch, God is so amazing it would be too much for one person to encounter.  The rule is, according to God, you can’t look at God head on.  Moses will only see God’s back.  God will place Moses in a safe place, “a crevice”, protect him with his hand, and pass by.  Moses will only see the tiniest, of tiny slivers of God’s presence.  I ask you again, “Isn’t that all we see?”  Whether it’s the ocean or the stars, all we ever see of creation is but a fraction of what we know actually exists.  Aren’t we OK with that?

People talk about going out into the woods, on the water, or other places to encounter God.  They say they don’t need the church.  I’ll tell you the God’s honest truth.  No one is encountering God in the woods, on a boat, or even in church.  The most we’re ever getting is what Moses got:  a glimpse of God’s back, a minuscule fraction of a whole that none of us can comprehend.  Where we get into trouble is thinking that glimpse is all there is and all we need and our perspective ends at the horizon or the limits of the Milky Way.  If for no other reason, we need this place, this church to remind us our perspectives are usually wrong and God’s is much wider than we ever imagined.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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My Proud, Beloved Infidel

I saw a man wearing a shirt identical to this earlier today.

We’re all unfaithful,
To one thing or another,
God, women, whiskey,
cigarettes brands and two bit songs,
Or beer to cheap to pour in glasses to dirty to wash,
But I’ve never been proud to be unfaithful,
To somebody else’s God,
My hands are full,
Disappointing my own.

–Richard Bryant

Lay Waste to the Lie of the Liberal Evangelical

I think I’ve an inkling of how many Muslims feel after a terrorist attack.  I’ve heard Islamic scholars and faith leaders say, “We’re not all like those who pervert our religious teachings.”  They are right.  Those who commit heinous acts of terror against innocent civilians are not representative of a whole religion possessing various forms of expression and practice.  It is wrong to paint an entire faith with a broad brush of hate and discrimination.  Yet, time and again, this pattern has repeated itself since the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  We see the evidence in violence against mosques and hate crimes.  Our Muslim sisters and brothers must be tired of disavowing and condemning those who’ve hijacked their faith.

Now, the tables have turned.  It is mainstream and mainline Christianity on the defensive.  Mainline Protestantism is under assault from Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians, sometimes from within our own denominations.  After a season of faith based conferences where Jesus is hardly mentioned and the nomination of candidates with religious views the Puritans would have rejected; I find myself regularly disavowing those who have hijacked Christianity.  Even with all of the semantic yoga and fancy hair splitting I can muster, I will never again refer to myself as an “evangelical”.  Some days, after I’ve heard senate candidate Roy Moore and listened to calls for a return to “Judeo-Christian” values, it takes everything I have to identify myself as a “Christian”.  Although I have served congregations for nearly twenty years and in three countries, I do not want to be described with the same words used to categorize a faith which, when presented as the dominant strain of Protestant Christianity, is unrecognizable from anything I’ve ever encountered.  In short, I’m embarrassed and ashamed.

I’m not the first person to feel that something central to the idea of being Christian has changed.  Our common moral currency was devalued.  Spiritual inflation set in and what we thought possessed of worth will no longer meet what we’ve been told are our new needs.  The Gospel, the Kingdom of God, and Jesus’ ministry are being displaced by other emotive and manipulative ideologies.  More than requiring believers assent to a historic creed, America’s dominant strain of Protestant Christianity is now a “litmus test” faith.  Are you pro-life (with no exceptions), pro-death penalty, favor no limits on any form of gun ownership, and pro-government to the extent you believe the Judeo-Christian deity foreordained America’s dominance in the world?  Do you believe that anything in American society which threatens your view of scripture is a threat to the fabric of society as well as the practice of Christianity?  Are selected laws laid down over two thousand years ago to determine the communal life of post-exilic Israelites crucial to understanding Christianity in 21st America?

You know the answers as well as I do.  Evangelicals, as the most visible and politically active brand of American Christianity, answer yes to these questions.  There are exceptions who would love to be painted as the rule but we’re too far gone to believe the lie of the liberal evangelical.  I’m identifying a core set of beliefs which I’ve encountered in evangelicals across nearly twenty years of ministry.  These are our neighbors, friends, and relatives.  Their gospel isn’t the same as the Good News I was ordained to spread.  In their eyes, most United Methodists aren’t Christian.  For me, calling out commonalities isn’t painting with a broad brush.  I’m speaking from my own life experiences.

These basic evangelical ideas are the building blocks of other varieties of fundamentalism.  This is where the divergence occurs.  Not every evangelical believes, like Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, that Minnesota representative Keith Ellison should be excluded from sitting in the US House of Representatives because he is a Muslim.  What’s disconcerting is this: the distance of the theological fine line separating the basic “litmus” test evangelical and a “Roy Moore” evangelical is growing shorter by the hour.  The waters are so muddied it’s harder for anyone to hear United Methodists and other mainline groups asking, “Why have you lost sight of Jesus, grace, and love?”

Because the current evangelical distortion is more prevalent throughout the culture, it impacts the ability of the local church to evangelize and witness.  “Aren’t you all like the gun toting man on television who says the Muslims are going to hell?” someone recently asked.  No, I said, we’re not.  It’s hard for the unchurched, those who are looking for a place of safety and sanctuary in a violence soaked world to ferret out the difference between churches like ours and the evangelicals they see praying before a presidential rally.  After all, we use the same language, well-worn clichés, pray to the same God, and generally appear to be indistinguishable from one another.  The world perceives us very differently than how we see ourselves.  Surely, they know we’re not all like “that”.  That’s what 1.8 billion Muslims have been saying to no avail for sixteen years.  Unless the world meets people of faith who practice radical hospitality and Christ centered compassion; we are entrusting the essence of Christianity to people who appear to have missed the point about Jesus’ ministry.

When public Christianity, in the most general sense of the term, advances the idea of unchecked moral decay, imagined systematic persecution by the government, and weaponizes scripture; it ceases to be Christian.  When God’s grace is an afterthought, love is a dividend, and forgiveness unheard of; those following “God” are not followers of Christ.  Like a white dwarf tearing itself apart, Christianity collapses inward.  The survivors of this supernova’s destruction are then left to decide:  when the name of Christ is sufficiently damaged beyond repair, does the label mean what it once meant?  No, it does not.  If Christianity is a zero sum game; only what the culture, media, government, and the evangelical church itself deems to be Christian, what am I?

I am not an evangelical.  I no longer want to argue etymologies and debate what someone who spreads the Good News should be called.  We know how the word is used and by whom.  This isn’t a fight worth having.  There are bigger fish to fry.  The longer we spend trying to convince others we’re the “good” evangelicals; we’ve given away the farm.  We’ve allowed form priority over substance.  In other words, the hand basket is well on it’s way to Hell.  While others argue about language, I’m for turning the thing around.

So by these evangelical standards, I am not a Christian.  I do, however, remain a follower of Jesus Christ.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Halloween Poem Chiefly Concerning Matters Fearful, Frightening, and Scary

I haven’t been that afraid,
since the last time I was scared,
which might have been the other day,
or was it when?
Maybe it was Sunday morning,
the day the preacher preached against sin,
he was frightening me,
about golden cows,
unchecked idolatry,
he petrified me,
but me is he,
and he is me,
so no wonder we’re scared.

–Richard Bryant

A Prisoner of Sky and Sea – A Poem

No, not today,
The seagull scowls,
I want to explain.
Why follow the beam of blue,
Spanning the day storms,
invisible to the naked eye?
Let me speak:
The offering of now,
on the altar of yesterday’s bread;
between the vagrant’s lips
are embellished lies;
migratory dreams,
undone by finite northeasterly nights,
when I have gone hungry
so others may flee,
and here remain bound,
a captive to sky and sea.

–Richard Bryant

Kind Atheists vs. Mean Christians

Christians intentionally use the word “sanctuary”. In our congregation, we regularly sing a hymn which asks the Lord to prepare us, the body of Christ, to be a “sanctuary”.  It’s a place, people, and an idea.   One reason the room where worship occurs is called a “sanctuary” is because that’s what it offers.  Church, as a whole, is a place of sanctuary, refuge, and safety.  Whether you’re in a worship service or a Sunday School classroom on a Sunday morning or a Thursday afternoon; the church is supposed to a place love is unconditional, grace is offered, and safety is guaranteed.

When this sense of safety is shattered, it sometimes makes the news.  If clergy or church members take advantage of the vulnerable or weak and the idea of the church as a place of sanctuary is destroyed; we’ve seen the toll it can take on victims, families, and churches as they regain their moral bearings.  Sensational headlines and scandals are all too familiar in Christianity and other religious traditions.  The unspeakable pain caused by such abuse has done more damage to the idea of institutional religion than statistics can adequately measure or believers readily admit.

While these stories attract deserved attention and shape how denominations train clergy, there are other unreported assaults on the idea of sanctuary that can be as destructive to the health of congregation or individual believers.  These attacks happen across churches, often undetected and unreported.  Some go on every Sunday morning and simply part of the culture of being a church.  As a result, the idea of “sanctuary” is eroded, church is seen less safe, faith is eroded, and the body of Christ is diminished.

What are these unacknowledged assaults?  There is a kindness deficit in our churches and society.  Where does it originate? It would be easy to blame the “comment in the name of dialogue” culture fostered by Facebook and other social media platforms.  I think that’s a factor.  I also believe some people have a mean streak, are tone deaf, and oblivious to the realities of Christian living no matter how long they’ve been in church.

The world is a harsh place.  The church should not be.  When it is, we fail.  I’m not a fool.  I know people do things inconsistent with Christian teaching.  However, is it possible to make the church consistent with a Christ centered ethic of love, for the time we share pews and space at the Communion table?  Gossip should be left at the front door; it certainly shouldn’t be repeated within earshot of person you’re talking about.  This seems like common sense.  The truth is it’s not.   Harsh words, pessimism, and passive aggressive fueled negativity do more damage than we see and are willing to admit.  As such, the church is less safe than it should be.

One of the most depressing and disturbing aspects of ministry is dealing with grief.  It is part of my job to work with families and individuals at their lowest moments.  If a loved one dies or someone receives the diagnosis of a serious illness, I am there to listen.  I am prepared and “trained” (for lack of a better word) for this part of my job.  What I’m not prepared for or adequately trained to deal with is the grief that originates from hurt feelings, tears, and sadness originating from within the church.  What do I say to the person who’s heard hurtful words while standing three feet away?  What do I say to this person, who heard such words, while standing in the “sanctuary”, the place of safety?  What do I say to a believer in Christ who’s ready to cry because of something another believer in Christ said to them, in the sanctuary?  I say I’m hurt.  I say I’m sorry.  I say to myself, “we don’t have to worry about schism or anything else, we’ll kill ourselves off.”

The biggest threat to United Methodism isn’t from liberals, progressives, conservatives, uniting, or covenant groups.  We, as currently constituted, are our own worst enemies.  Our inability to recognize and offer grace about the most mundane aspects of life, on the micro level, will prevent us from ever coming to an agreement on the macro issue human sexuality.

This reminds me of that old saying, “God prefers a kind atheist to a mean Christian”.  I agree.  The longer I’m in ministry the truer it rings.

Richard Lowell Bryant