Jesus Might Have Been a United Methodist

1) He could pull a covered dish meal together with bread, fish, and all the fixings at a moment’s notice. This is a hallmark of Methodism. (John 6:1-15)

2) Jesus never called meetings in any one central location. He always kept people on the move. (Luke 9:1-6)

3) Jesus never had any problems asking anyone to leave work for a mission trip. (Luke 5:1-11)

4) The women were the backbone of the church. Some we know well, some from the text, and some from context. (Luke 8:3)

5) He had a favorite place to sit in the synagogue. Every United Methodist has their special pew. (Luke 4:16)

6) Jesus believed in a strong camping ministry. (Matthew 4:1-12)

7) Jesus loved to have a BBQ out on the beach.  I know we do! (John 21:4)

8) He knows how to make his bed. This seems, for some reason, a very Methodist thing. (John 20:7)

9) Jesus liked to keep things simple, especially when it comes to church (and money). Wesley simplified complicated, hierarchical religious practices for ordinary people.   In this way, Jesus might be a United Methodist.  (John 2:13-16)

10) Jesus has a great outlook on life. (Matthew 6:25-34) Don’t worry, be happy.  He has this outlook without ever attending an annual conference, general conference, or district training workshop.  On this point, Jesus differs with United Methodists.  Do Methodists still have a great outlook? Are we happy go lucky Jesus people? Only time, conferences, councils, rulings, votes, hearings, more votes, rancorous arguments, and more rulings will tell how happy we really are.


Totally Real Things I Heard People Say on This Memorial Day Saturday

1) I wonder what this place is like in the off season
2) Man, Memorial Day weekend sure is busy, you can’t find a place to park
3) I feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere
4) Next year I want to go to the “Hollering Contest”
5) Do you have to wear a tuxedo to the Fireman’s Ball?
6) Dave, look
7) Where’s the lighthouse?
8) Leave the beer out of the bag
9) Your dog is having separation anxiety
10) Riding a bicycle while smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee is a bad idea. (I said this one.)

Born, Again (John 3:16)

We’ve all been here before.  This isn’t your first John 3:1-17 rodeo.  I know it’s not.  If you tell it me it is, you are lying to be pedantic and difficult. As such, we’re going avoid scriptural foreplay and witty banter which usually leads to the John 3:16 climax I know you’re waiting on.  That’s not how we’re going to do this.  In the famous and unpublished words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “I’m going to invade Waterloo from Sweden”.  What the hell does that mean?  I don’t know.  I think it means I’m going to try something different with this passage we think we all know so well.

Nicodemus wants to know, “How do these circular answers relate to the story of my birth let alone being born for a second time?”  He’s looking for a clear, black and white answer.  I don’t get the feeling Nicodemus was looking to invest much time, energy, and thought into this process.  He’d come to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  A deep philosophical and theological discussion about the nature of life and rebirth wasn’t fitting into his ever diminishing timetable.  Nicodemus needed an answer, “what does any of this have to do with being born again?”

Nicodemus is actively listening.  Contrary to countless sermons and dramatic presentations, he is not a dumb man. Nor is Nicodemus intellectually shallow.  He is a Pharisee. This should count for something.  He is seeking to understand God.  Jesus tries to help him understand by using “birth” as a metaphor.  Metaphors are important.  Jesus uses them often.  A woman creating, carrying, and giving life over a nine month period constitutes his primary image of the idea of “birth”.  Being born “again”, as it has been presented, isn’t within his intellectual wheelhouse.  How is this central to, relate back, and tie into seeing God’s kingdom?  What is it about the act of birth; nurturing life for nine months and then at the right time delivering a human being into the world that reveals something he’s not getting about how God functions?

To really understand what’s happening, we need to be Nicodemus.  We must put ourselves in his shoes.  His limitations are ours. The pressures and constraints he experiences are those we feel:  give me what I need to make me feel whole, happy, and healthy and give it to me now.  Nicodemus doesn’t want to want to work too hard, too long, to reach what the Buddhists call Nirvana and Jesus is going to call eternal life.

There are layers of tension we don’t regularly talk about or acknowledge when we approach John 3:16.  They’re self-evident, staring us in the face, but we ignore them at our own peril.  We talk around them.  You can’t miss obvious tension in that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and Jesus is Jesus.  These two men are from two different sides of the social and economic tracks.  The Pharisees, as a whole, are opposed to Jesus’ message.  That’s why Nicodemus is visiting Jesus under the cover of darkness, seems a little shady, and is ready to ask his questions and get back to his side of town.  He doesn’t want to be caught hanging around Jesus’ house.  Economically and religiously they are as different as they come.  The worlds they inhabit are polarized.  As representatives of their distinct groups, they stand out.  Jesus looks like the forgotten people and Nicodemus stands in for the religious and political bureaucracy who left them behind.   My point is this:  there is a huge gap, full of tension (on multiple levels) between Jesus and Nicodemus.

What does Jesus mean by being “born again”?  Hasn’t it all be said?  Probably, but let’s take one more try.  Birth is a slow, deliberative, creative, and formative process.  Notice I said creative.  It is like creation.  It is creating life, think about Genesis.  Life is coming into world, one more time, just as it has for billions of years.  Being born is a Genesis moment.  Birth is not a big bang moment.  Instead, it is deliberate life giving moment that follows.  Jesus is talking about birth in these grand, Genesis like terms while also thinking about the beauty of birth which keeps the spark of creation alive.  Nicodemus is not on that level.  Jesus wants him to think a little larger.

Let’s go back to the original question.  What does Jesus mean by “born again”?  There’s one fundamental reality about birth; none of us had any choice in the matter. We have nothing to do with the circumstances of our own birth.  Birth isn’t a choice.

Jesus seems to be indicating:  to be born again means arriving at a place where we have no choice but to arrive.  Being born again points to a certain level of inevitability.  We will end up in some kind of positive relationship with God.  Does this happen because we make it happen?  No it doesn’t.  Our efforts are guaranteed to fail. God presence is the only guarantee of life’s success.  If birth works, whether the first time (or the “again” time), it’s because God is moving toward us faster than we can run away.  God has everything to do with being born again.  Since we’re all living testaments to the miracle of birth, being born again is both God’s call and God’s prerogative.  We choose who we marry, live, and work.  We don’t choose life.  Life chose us, again.

Life, birth, whether new or “again” unifies us.  If you’re a carpenter or a Pharisee, Republican or a Democrat, a NRA member or opposed to the Second Amendment, polarized or could care less; life brings people together when they appear to share no commonalities.

Look at Nicodemus’ question in verse 10.  He asks, “How are these things possible?”  How can this one story which seems to be common ground for all Christians work?  How can life and life, again bring polarized people together (people like Nicodemus and Jesus)?  I think it can.  Stories like this, the ones we’ve heard thousands of times before, have resonance though we swear there’s nothing we can learn.

Let’s go back to his original question:  how is it possible to be born, again?  Given, there’s no choice in the matter, someone external to you (mother or God) does all the work, you’re totally dependent on food and safety from this external source, and you have no control over the timetable.  Now, you’re starting to really feel Nicodemus’ confusion and you really do want to know, “how is this possible?”

Do you want the good news or the bad news?  Jesus answers the question.  However, he doesn’t give an answer Nicodemus likes or expects.

We are born, again because our lives our worth saving.  Our birth makes us alive.  Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus that being “born, again” makes us human.  And God, for no better way to put it, is interested in saving and redeeming the worst parts of our humanity.  Everyone’s life has an intrinsic worth, value, and meaning.  As I said a moment ago, life is what we everyone holds in common.  When we stop seeing value in the lives of others, our humanity as our common denominator, we stop seeing God.  Dehumanization is the first step to genocide.  Saving humanity is the first step toward salvation.  The contrast couldn’t be any clearer.

God, in ways we will never imagine or understand, loved us enough give us Jesus.  Through remembering Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the Eucharist, we are given a means listening to world, forgiving others, and looking for God at work in the lives of those who surround us.  The Eucharist levels the playing field so we can see each other not as animals or clumps of carbon or groups of atoms.  When we come to the table, we see each other as those who are born, again, alive in Christ, and loved children of God.

Richard Lowell Bryant

There’s No Such Thing As the Trinity (Some Dudes Made It Up)

There is no such thing as the Holy Trinity.  There is a means of referring to the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy the Spirit which Christians call the “Holy Trinity”.  We don’t know if that’s what God calls God’s relationships or if the Trinity exists anything at all as we describe.  My inclination is to believe God functions beyond language terms and classifications.  It’s our word.  No one’s gotten a message back from God as to whether God agrees with our system or choice of terms.  Yet we, the church, live and die by three in one, one in three.

We do love our religious vocabulary.  Everything has to have a term.  If we can label something we can control its use and outcome.  By labeling the Trinity (and other aspects of God’s work and identity) we are trying to control God.  God can only work in the predefined, pre-determined Trinitarian ways.   If you control who has access to God, for most of human history, you were the biggest kid on the playground.

We’ve made up elaborate theologies to help us describe how we think God relates to God’s self.  The truth is this:  our most complex Trinitarian theology and ideas are guesses.  If string theorists, who are searching for a mathematical language to describe the origins for the universe admit that their work is theoretical, why do Christian theologians speak with such confidence when it comes to the presence and work of the Holy Trinity?  There’s faith and then there’s arrogance.  The means in which we’re describing God’s relationships are not real.  Aren’t we the “don’t put God into a box people?”  Current Trinitarian explanations are just another box, limiting how encounter God.  Is it impossible for us to be honest:  We really have no idea how any of this works.

The Trinity is a (semantic, logical, cosmological, theological, psychological, and philosophical) construct, a theological conjecture; created by flawed and fallible Homo sapiens who want to understand something no one really understands:  the way God relates to God’s self.  The word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible.  God, Jesus, nor the silent Holy Spirit refers to themselves as a Trinity.  The readers of scripture are never privy to discussions of substance and form between the members of the Godhead as we’ll later find in minutes of the historic councils of the church.  Matters important to defining Christian orthodoxy seem to be of little matter to the deity, the deity’s son, or the spirit whom we debate or celebrate in art.

We, the Homo sapiens in question, came up with the word, developed something that sounded rational and applied it to God.  For something completely man made, built on a inferences and interpretations of a handful of scripture, we created Orthodoxy from nothing.  From Jesus’ teachings about family, fathers, relationships and the spirit; we made hard and fast rules about heresies that still divide the church.  Trinity Sunday, far from being something to be celebrated, looks to me to me to be a day for caution and prayer.  This is what happens when we make up our own doctrines and start selling a fake news story to the church that God created a rigid hierarchy which really started on our own whiteboard.  The truth is:  God was nowhere to be found when we made up the Trinity and turned it into a tool to isolate, annoy, and explain God’s expansive love in terms of a dysfunctional family.

Let’s be careful with what we’re celebrating and explaining on Trinity Sunday.  Maybe, like Lucy coming home to Ricky, we still have some explaining to do.  My gut tells me it doesn’t involve eggs, clovers, or anything about a doctrine we made up. I think we need to stop making things up, reading stuff into the text, and even qualify the fancy patristic writings we’ve inherited, because it may be not be all it’s cracked up to be.  The Trinity works best when we remember it’s really a theory.  It works because we make it work.  Love, on the other hand, is a doctrine.  That’s something you can prove.  Jesus wouldn’t let go of love.  Nor should we.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Remarks on Presenting Bibles to Graduating Seniors

1. Sometimes we need to be reminded our past is bigger than the history we believe we’ve inherited. We are recipients of an awesome genealogy from our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents and beyond. At some point, the records become scarce. The wisdom keepers of our community pass on. The Bible is a reminder that our story is the common story shared by humanity since the dawn of time.

2. We need to be reminded that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. There is a big picture and sometimes it’s hard to see when you spend all day (or your whole life) looking at Instagram stories. We are part of God’s story.

3. We need to be reminded that community is important. The Bible points us to membership in a community where we believe that gathering around a higher moral purpose is a good thing. There are all types of communities. Some groups are devoted to sports, fitness, or hobbies. Church is different. For over 2000 years, with this book as our guide, we’ve gathered to say pursuing a higher moral purpose in life, rooted in love, is a good thing. When celebrations happen or tragedy strikes; I can tell you from hard won experience, you’re going to want to be with people who value the Bible. This is because you will be loved beyond the superficiality of thoughts and prayers.

4. We need to write our story. Parts of the Bible are unfinished. Mark’s story of the resurrection ends of Jesus’ disciples finding the tomb empty. They never see Jesus’ body. It’s up to the reader to make the resurrection real.  Christian theology is participatory.  Read the book for yourself.

5. Religion aside, this is the foundation work of western literature. To be an intelligent, well-read person you need to know the Bible to appreciate Shakespeare, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, and other great writers of modern literature.

It’s Not About Us

It’s not about us.  Pentecost isn’t a first century episode of “This Is Us”.  In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that’s a huge problem with church right now: we make everything about us.  These buildings we inhabit, fund with apportionment dollars, and pretend to be the front lines in the culture war are hatcheries for spiritual narcissism.  That’s not a church.  Churches, like the Pentecost act, are outwardly focused on the work of God, not self-contained study groups of God’s hand-picked elite.

Pentecost is about God and our response to God.  Pentecost isn’t about us, our feelings, plans, or best intentions.  The frightening immediacy of the Pentecost moment reveals God’s primal urgency.  This isn’t our show.  Suddenness of the Holy Spirit’s arrival offers no time for debate or airing of opinions.  We are either in or out.  God’s grand Pentecost design demands a response.  Press releases, studies, commissions, and Upper Room based prayer meetings will not suffice.  We can either participate in the dramatic act of inclusion God is about to perform or we can debate ourselves into oblivion, which, is the same as telling God no.  We can argue that Pentecost and the future of our brand of Christianity is about us:  our ideas, structures, and decision making are superior to those which shaped and formed the cosmos.  With raised hands and eloquent turns of phrase we can speak by and about God.  Will our crowd funded dissolution conference be about us or God? Who knows?

If we opt for the former, we will be most decidedly wrong.  Now if God chooses against being in partnership with the United Methodists, we’re really up the creek.  Anybody seen Abraham Lincoln lately to ask him what happens when both sides in a civil war pray to the same God?  People get hurt. It’s never pretty or as righteous as anyone is led to believe.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Pentecost’s Vindication of the Designated Hitter Rule

1. Bring a pair of clean underwear. When howling winds from heaven burst in and the tongues of flame appear above my head, I cannot be responsible for the actions of my digestive system. Pentecost is a sudden shock to the system.

2. Were I to ever appear on Shark Tank, I’d offer a “FIRE ABOVE YOUR HEAD” Hot Sauce.

3. The Holy Spirit is the Trinity’s Designated Hitter. The pitcher (Jesus) is on the bench. The Holy Spirit is now at bat. There is no church without the designated hitter rule.

4. The Holy Spirit is integral to understanding and translating the conversations I have every day. On a regular basis, I’ll say, “Them dingbatters done come over on the Hatteras ferry and are acting like a bunch of turons as far as I can tell. I didn’t see one O’cocker among them on the boat.” The Holy Spirit is not just a Pentecost phenomena. The spirit enables us to listen and learn in the present tense. Your language defines you. Our dialect makes sense to God. How does the equation change when someone actually listens? God speaks to you like a native.

5. People do start drinking early. I understand the crowd’s confusion. I see fishermen loading up with cases up beer at 9 am and headed out for a day of fishing and fun on the water. This is one part of the Pentecost story that rings true: people who like to get an early start on the day! What’s the multi-lingual/multinational crowd saying? The power of God looks, at first glance, like day drinking. I’ve seen my share of day drinking. It’s a bit of a thing here on the Outer Banks. Maybe the outpouring of God’s love does favor a group of good ole boys (a few beers in), with packed YETI coolers, standing in the back of a fishing boat telling stories about the most awesome thing that ever happened to them. OK, I get it. That’s what it looks like. Here’s the thing. Our 1st century fishermen aren’t drunk. They’re overwhelmed by God.

6. This was not Robert Tilton/TV preacher style speaking on tongues. I see them on television and I believe those guys are drunker than my buddies on the fishing boats. Acts tell us the disciples were speaking real foreign languages understood by real people. Chief Sitting Bull, had he been in Jerusalem, would have heard someone speaking on Lakota Sioux.

7. Sitting Bull wasn’t in Jerusalem. You get the point.