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

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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.

We Are All Unchurched

Last week, the clergy in our district and church lay leaders were invited to attend a meeting on the evening of Pentecost.  I’ve been preparing all week to speak in tongues.

It’s not that I’m opposed to meetings.  Sometimes important discussions are to be had.  This isn’t one of them.  Gatherings about topics we’ve addressed unsuccessfully for years (anyone remember Catch the Fire?), held only one day after I made the same 10 hour (round trip) journey (for another district meeting), show how little the dominant power structure understands about the stewardship of time and resources.

While presented as such, these meetings are not an honest exchange of ideas. Submit your reflections on note cards that we’ll promptly throw away.  Go get in a small group and write some thoughts on these sheets of newsprint which we’ll never read again.  We’re supposed to do what they believe is right.  Isn’t this how Methodism ended up in its current mess; one cookie cutter meeting at a time?  Band meetings are a great idea.  No one has ever willing to lead that way.    Small groups, yes.  But leadership, never.  They are far too communal, consensus based, Wesleyan, and Socialist.

What are the Methodists of the Beacon District called to discuss on Pentecost?  It would appear to be the perfect topic:  bringing the unchurched back to church.   It is 2018, Donald Trump is in the White House and Roy Moore may run for Governor in Alabama.  May we stop using the word “unchurched”?  The most “unchurched” people are the self-proclaimed Christians who are also accused pedophiles and serial adulterers with a penchant for porn stars.  The term “unchurched” much like the word “evangelical” has lost all meaning in early 21st century America.  It’s time to stop using this word.  We look ridiculous using words we pretend to understand in order to describe a world which doesn’t exist.

United Methodism, in general, has no idea what it means to be a church.  Look around at the mess in our own house!  Evangelicalism has polarized the idea of what it means to be a Christian in America.  In Robert Jeffress’ and Roy Moore’s eyes, I am “unchurched”.   If someone is unchurched, have they (or have they not) been exposed to the right wing Jesus, the left wing Jesus, the Apostles’ Creed, Christian Zionism, or how to dip Hawaiian bread into Welch’s grape juice?  What does it mean to be unchurched?  “Unchurched” is a term laced with such vagueness and ambiguity it is useless in contemporary evangelism.  I believe it creates an insulting stereotype of those who might find love, grace, and mercy in our congregations.

United Methodists don’t know who is “unchurched” and we have no right to judge the value of someone’s religious life experience when they enter the doors of a United Methodist congregation.  In this sense, we are all unchurched.  None of us are getting church right.  We are decoupled from the messy heart of the Good News.  Nobody knows what they’re doing.  We are unhooked, unhinged, and about to come undone.  Just look at our inability to treat women and gay people fairly.  By the missional standards we’re still using, it sounds like our denomination is unchurched.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Mother’s Day Pastoral Prayer

There are too many prayers to name on Mother’s Day.  Our Mothers, Grandmothers, stepmothers, and others who act as mothers play such important roles in our lives.  We are grateful for their love, care, and understanding.  We remember the example of Jesus, even while upon the cross, caring for his mother’s needs.  May we be aware of the needs of our mothers and the women who care for children and families in our community.

Today we pray for those in the paths of natural disasters.  We especially remember our sisters and brothers in Hawaii.  Earth is not ours to tame or control.  God of creation, calm the chaos and provide time and space for those who are in danger to be moved to safety.

We pray for those who were injured last evening in attacks on churches in Indonesia and on the streets of Paris.  Hate is not a divine calling.  We pray for the victims of violence everywhere.

For those who suffer, seek medical treatment, and dwell in the thin places of life; we pray for their comfort and healing.  Gracious God, bring peace and assurance to them in moments of uncertainty and pain.  Help us to be ministers of presence and people who listen.  We are not called to have the right answers.  Help us to ask the right questions. Help us remember that we are to be present and aware.  May we become living instruments of your grace and mercy.  In the silence of our hearts, we remember those we have named this morning.

Amen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Are You My Mother? (A Mother’s Day Reflection)

In P.D. Eastman’s seminal work on motherhood and abandonment, “Are You My Mother?” the reader follows the journey of an infant bird, suddenly abandoned by its mother.  Forced to seek food beyond the confines of the nest, the baby bird is confused, disoriented, and alone.  Like many single parents in the today’s economy, the need to feed her offspring forced the mother to make a difficult decision.  Do I leave the nest to work and obtain food, leaving my child beyond the care of a relative or friend or do we starve?  Without a community to rely upon, the mother left and her child was alone.

The bird has never seen its mother.  Born in darkness and reared in a silent oval of matriarchal darkness, the bird has no concept of itself or the world it inhabits.  The bird’s entry into the animal kingdom was one of ignorance.  The bird lacked access to the basic skills and education held by others animals it would soon encounter.  Fueled only by a desire to connect with its mother, the bird left the relative safety of the nest for a world it did not know or understand.   Unable to fully read, write, or express itself, the bird was severely disadvantaged.  Predators (both financial and physical) were irrelevant to bird’s narrow world view.  Without basic knowledge and relationship awareness with the other animals, the market driven economy would devour the bird.

In quick succession, the bird meets three local animals: a kitten, a chicken, and a dog.  The “kitten just looked and looked.  It did not say a thing.”  The cat is a natural predator of the bird.  Mute kittens, while harmless enough to humans, provoke fear in the minds of small birds.  This cat represents the sum of all fears; that which the bird address and is to frighten to name.  Clearly, this evil is not his mother.  Similarly the chicken and the dog are also like the bird but different.  The chicken is a bird, they share similar qualities, but they are not the same.

On the other hand, the cow, who speaks, is large and benevolent.  The cow might be her mother. In Hinduism, the role of the Mother is raised to the level of a Goddess.  Mothers are highly venerated.  This is why the cow is considered a sacred animal.  Cows give us sacred, life giving milk.  Cows are maternal, sacred, and life-giving animals.  Is Eastman telling us, despite the bovine protestations, that the cow is indeed the mother of the bird and mother goddess of us all?  I believe so.

Not to take rejection lightly, the bird asks, “Did he have a mother?” This is the ultimate existential question.  Where did I come from?  Do I exist?

“I did have a mother,” said the baby bird.  “I know I did.  I have to find her.  I will.  I will!”

The bird realizes we all come from somewhere. The bird has stumbled on to one of the greatest Mathematical paradoxes of the modern era.  First described by Kurt Gödel in the early 20th century, it’s often referred to as the “incompleteness theorem”.  In 1931, Gödel began work on idea which said; whatever is the biggest idea humanity can figure out, we can always go one bigger.  That thing one bigger may be God or in this case, the bird’s mother.  The little bird is on to find the unmoved mover.

However, instead of moving onward toward the cosmos or inward toward the soul, the bird goes outward into the junkyards of late 20th century capitalism.  There is the beat up old car, the steam ship traveling through a canal, a jet, and finally a backhoe.  In each of these confrontations, the bird honestly believes he’s found his mother.  To the reader, a sense of sadness should be palpable.  How did an innocent, abandoned bird, a victim of the modern capitalist economy come to confuse his mother with the byproducts of capitalism (tools which are used to destroy his home, his family, his food supply)?

Isn’t this the socio-economic horror story of our time?  Yes.

The backhoe takes him home.  A happy ending.   Yeah, right.  How long before the wealthy landowner orders the backhoes to take the tree down?  Eastman doesn’t tell you that story.

I send my thoughts and prayers to the bird and his mother, preemptively.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

How’s The Church at Ephesus Doing Today?

What happened to the church at Ephesus?  Everything seemed to be going so well.  Paul seems pleased with their success.  After Paul’s visit to Ephesus, which was memorable, they continued to grow and thrive.  In an era without the internet and modern communication, he was able to stay abreast of events in the church he planted.  “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that I don’t stop giving thanks for you when I remember you in my prayers.”  Paul remains thankful for the Ephesians.  They are at the top of his prayer list.  This makes sense.  After investing so much of his time and energy in establishing the church, he’s glad to hear things are working.  I’m sure Paul prays for all the places he’s lived, visited, and established.  Nevertheless, when given the variable, especially in the middle of a hostile culture and Roman religious practices, Paul’s going to be extra thankful for the Ephesians.  These first few verses of Ephesians point in us that direction.

We know from Luke’s story of Paul’s time in Asia Minor what happened in Ephesus.  The letter to the Ephesians reveals Paul’s directions and response to ongoing events in Ephesus.  Yet, this doesn’t answer my first question.  What happened to the church at Ephesus?  We know what happened.  You can travel to Turkey and take a tour of Ephesus and see the remains of the community of Ephesus.  The church isn’t there.  You can do the same thing in Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia.  Most of the places where Paul planted churches are archaeological ruins.  Let me emphasize the word “ruins”.  Paul’s greatest successes have vanished from the face of the Earth.  There are no functioning churches.  If churches do exist in the vicinity, they are not the churches Paul started.  Paul’s churches are dead.  The Corinthian Church, unable to love but always willing to fight, is consigned to the dustbin of history.  The Ephesians and the Philippians (the two communities who seemed to “get it”) are no more viable than United Methodism is about to be.

Reading Ephesians 1:15-23, I came away with this idea:  good churches that make disciples, with grand intentions to transform the world, who do everything right, still fade away into history.  We can do everything right (whatever “right” means) at the special general conference and the next general conference and still fail.  It probably won’t matter.  If right means preserving each “sides” version of the status quo, then we’ve left the powerful in place and postponed our inevitable journey toward Ephesus like oblivion.

Mainline Protestantism is dying.  Our churches are struggling. This is not because there are liberals in the pulpits and conservatives in the pews.  It’s not because people aren’t giving until it hurts.  The system we’ve inherited from our parents and grandparents is broken, antiquated, and isn’t easily adaptable to life in the 21st century.  We’ve streamlined and changed titles.  Nothing changes this reality:  our organizational structure is essentially as it was prior to World War II.   That’s killing us.  It’s 2018 and we’re still assigning clergy like it’s 1918.  That’s a serious problem.

Methodism’s current theology toward human sexuality is also flawed.  Also, our institutions and systems of power were developed in a pre-industrial age America.  If we discard the former we need to significantly overhaul the latter.

The institutional church is out of touch with the people sitting in the pews; one need only read the horribly written press release which announced the Council of Bishops’ decision last Friday.  Communication is not among their spiritual gifts.  Private meetings and unreleased votes and ridiculously long time tables inspire little confidence in those who are charged with leading communities between Sunday services.    I know more about what Robert Mueller will do if a subpoena to the president is challenged in the Supreme Court than I do the future of my own denomination and livelihood.  The White House keeps America better informed than the Bishops keep Methodists in the loop.  That’s sad.    It’s also true.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

12 Ideas for Understanding the Ascension

1. The Ascension isn’t about a flying, vertically launched airborne Jesus. Don’t get distracted by the flying Jesus.

2. Even Superman isn’t about a man who can fly; his mission is truth, justice, and the American way.

3. Jesus is focused on the Good News  shared at ground level, by his disciples. The Good News at Ground Level begins with Baptism.

4. While everyone is looking up, who’s focusing on the coming Baptism? Certainly not the disciples.

5. This is last opportunity to ask Jesus questions indicating you still don’t “get” him or his ministry.

6. Perhaps Jesus leaves in such a visible manner because he’s tired of being asked, “Are you going to restore the kingdom now?” What does it take for everyone to get this point? Telling person after person, “that’s not my deal, man” wasn’t enough?

7. The disciples are not ready to move up after Jesus has moved out.

8. Where is our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the Earth?

9. Let’s figure out where our version of Samaria is.

10. I’m betting Samaria and the Samaritans need us.

11. The disciples are unprepared and unready to do anything without Jesus.

12. The Ascension is right now and we’re perennially starting over.   You heard the guys, stop looking up. Look out, around, beyond, and look anywhere but up.