The New Rules for Summer 2018

1. Jesus turning over the tables in the temple isn’t a catch-all excuse for Christian rudeness or violence. Stop blaming your mental health issues on the writers of the New Testament. Get help with your anger.

2. Engage the world. It’s easy to build our own utopias, ignore suffering, avoid evil, and live in our well manicured bubbles. That is not living; it’s existing. Life is found in engaging reality, authentically, one moment at a time.

3. If we keep track of the sins of others, we’ve made a serious decision to take life in an unhealthy direction. Emotionally, physically, and psychologically this will eventually ruin everything we cherish.  Keep track of good things.

4.  What does it mean to live a good life?  Ask hard questions that push your beyond your comfort zone.

5. Remember, you don’t know what other people are going through.  Cut people some slack.  There’s probably more going on in their lives than you realize.

6. Before writing or speaking , ask, “Will any good come from this?” If we can’t say “yes”, something is wrong.  Don’t be that person.  

7. Can the world see behind our sunglasses? Have we carefully constructed an image (not with clothing, cars, houses, or boats), emotionally speaking, to tell the world who we are? Do we deploy that image selectively? Are we able to be ourselves, all day, every day? What stops us?  Be authentic.

8. Everyone falls behind at some point. Because we’re disciples of Jesus, we can’t be selective about who we help. Christians don’t have the luxury of choosing who to assist, raise funds for, and who is deserving of God’s blessings.  Be generous.  

9. Fill up your tank with gas. You never know you when might need to take a trip to the hospital.

10. Don’t limit yourself to 280 characters. Spoken language is also an effective means of communication. Talk (with real words) to (real) people more often, even those with whom you disagree.  

Richard Bryant

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There Is Too Much Confusion, I Can’t Get No Relief

There is something unsettling about this moment in history.   Normal doesn’t feel normal.  Observing those who are on vacation, I’m not the first person living on this tourist island to remark, “It feels like people are going through the motions of having fun.”  Life itself is askew.  You can feel it in the shorter fuses, easier arguments, one too many late night bar fights, and suicide attempts marking “this” present from the past.

Something isn’t right.  Despite the sunshine and fishing on offer, the world seems a darker place.  Why?  I listen.  I watch.  I pray.  I want to know.  The license tags from all over the United States and foreign languages tell me the world is passing through our tiny island.  Despite our size, the people I meet offer a snapshot of a much larger whole.  I ask.  I look.  I notice.  What have I observed?  There are those who are angry and on edge.  Some are drunk.  Plenty are nervous.  Many expect this island to be a tropical paradise (a word frequently used is “happy place”), exempt from problems dominating the world they left.  Some have no plan other than to numb the pain they feel from the constant negativity they imbibe hour after hour.  A few come to die.  Mental health issues have no respect for geography or season.

Aren’t these the perennial burdens of the human condition?  Yes, to one degree.  This feels different.  The world, even this perceived perfect corner of it, is edging beyond weird.  It’s at the golf cart stand, the bakery, or anywhere “wrong” rears its so called head.  There is a growing malignant sense of self-entitled vengeance leaving many Americans unanchored to any larger sense of morality or virtue.  In the past week I have come to realize that vast numbers of Americans (regardless of their political persuasion or faith background) believe that two wrongs make a right.

Regardless of what view one holds of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, or the number St. Augustine’s angels dancing on the head of Saint John Wesley’s pin; it is impossible to embrace the basic teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and believe two wrongs create a right.  This is not a “hold two thoughts in your brain” at the same time issue.  That is the essence of Jesus’ identity.  Don’t confuse retributive violence (or actions) with a God who loves everyone, even the people you hate.  Don’t call death, love.  Don’t call shame, love.  Don’t call anger, love.

If “two wrongs make right” becomes the dominant situational ethic in America, the church need no longer exist.  The Judeo-Christian ethic is dead.  The Creeds and Articles of Faith are meaningless in a world where the underlying value system of right and wrong underscoring the teachings of Christ no longer exists in the culture the church claims to serve.

Perhaps, we could fight the good fight?  I say we replicate the same divisions within the larger culture, demonize our enemies, ride our Wesleyan high horses, create podcasts called “Why I’m Right”, and argue ourselves silly about the true meaning of civility.  Sounds lovely!

To paraphrase Wystan Auden, suffering is what takes place when other people are eating dinner.  If this is what the future portends for the church, as we swim in the backyard pool of homemade authoritarianism (whether political, theological, or Wesleyan Covenantal), we are all dining with each other in order to watch ourselves suffer.  I will gladly offer my seat on the Misery Express to someone else.  I’d rather opt out than participate in an ecclesial struggle where culture (in any hegemonic sense) wins and Jesus is excluded, perpetually, from the team.

In the end, perhaps none of our theological shenanigans and religious posturing will matter.  Climate change will claim this island.  Methodism will, to quote Hamlet, be or not.  Jesus might even return.  And one day, perhaps sooner rather than later, we’ll all be in one of those camps on the border.  There we can argue in person, wearing orange jumpsuits, about the true nature of civility and Sanctification.

Save a cot for me.  It’s the least you can do.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What Will They Think of Next? Churches For People of Different Political Persuasions

So what’s going to happen next?  We’ll have restaurants which serve only Democrats and those which serve only Trump leaning Republicans.  You know what comes then?  Soon, you’ll find churches which cater to one particular political persuasion over another.  Wouldn’t that be grand, to sit for an hour or so each Sunday morning with a group of people who look, think, talk, feel, and even vote identical to me!  Wait, a minute, we’ve got that already.  Welcome to America.

There is a place where this pseudo-dystopian reality already exists.  I lived in Northern Ireland for two years.  And like it or not, I found out the hard way:  there are Protestant restaurants, Catholic pubs, Protestant grocery stores, and Catholic schools.  I’ve lived in a place divided along ancient religious, political, and sectarian lines.  Manufactured fear was the currency of the realm.  I stood in the middle of those lines as Protestant pastor.  Let me tell you the God’s honest truth about that world:  it sucked.  You don’t want to go there.  You don’t want to raise children in a place where the first thing they’re asked in school is this:  are you Catholic or Protestant?  We don’t want to live in a place where tribalism becomes so predominant that declaring such a loyalty is the first step toward an education, a meal, or worshiping God.

I am not naïve.  I sat with former Sinn Fein prisoners and Ulster Unionists.  I listened to those, first hand, who languished in British jails.  I prayed with my congregation members whose family and friends assassinated by Irish Republican terrorists.  I’ve sat through modern day bomb scares.  I was beaten and robbed in the street just yards from the front door of the Irish Methodist church I served.  A tribalized society, fueled by self-righteous anger and socially sanctioned mistrust leads to more bullets, bombs, and killing.  If you play this tape out, it doesn’t end with snarky tweets.  Instead, people die.

What some Americans are talking about (kicking people out of restaurants as civil disobedience) is not the answer to closing camps on the border. I know this because it’s the failed dysfunctional reality in modern day Northern Ireland.  Protestants live in East Belfast.  West Belfast is majority Catholic.  The British Army is still in Northern Ireland and the province is governed from London.  Civil Disobedience died on Bloody Sunday.

Our blindness has descended swiftly and surely.  America’s supreme moral arrogance is to believe we are going to reinvent the wheel when it comes to religion, society and politics.  We are a self-aggrandizing and arrogant lot.  Anything is on the table and everything is game because the past eighteen months have been so evil.  We are wrong.   We’ve convinced ourselves we are right.  If we start down this road,  it requires a toll, I can assure you, few are willing to pay.

There is much wrong with the present.  Violence in Latin America is evil.  Internment camps are evil whether opened by Wilson,  Roosevelt, Clinton,  either Bush, Obama, or Donald J. Trump.  Asylum is good and joyful thing with a rich Biblical tradition.  I do not believe it is too late, in eschatological terms, to condemn all that is evil and embrace all that is good.  Our ability to be polarized depends on how much power we give to the polarization surrounding us.

Is it possible to make space at the grand Eucharistic table for those seeking asylum while we are fighting our own struggles of who carries the greater degree of moral clarity?  That’s the question we face.

Tribalism, self-righteousness, and misdirected indignation only make the work of reconciliation harder.

We are all Syro-Phoenician women asking to be seen and heard.  We have followed Jesus into a strange land.  Refugees, asylum seekers for Grace, we seek only the crumbs from the table.  None of us have permanent status.  Whether it is the gift of race, birth, education; or presence here is fragile and based on sheer dumb luck.  Some may call it privilege.  Others may call it grace or the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Whatever you term it, remember where to direct our outrage, how to direct our emotions, so that we can make the Kingdom bigger, not smaller.  (Please go read Matthew 15-21-28.)

I want a bigger Kingdom and a bigger church that excludes no one.  I mean everybody.  Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Gays, African-Americans, Latinos, Asylum seekers, Trans-gendered people, North Koreans, South Koreans, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and even University of North Carolina fans and alumni.

Richard Lowell Bryant

How Many of Us?

Thoughts from the road…

Negativity is killing us.  Yet, it needs to be faced. Jesus died to say yes to life.  It feels like we are against everything.  The stuff we oppose is evil.  We need to find something good to say in the midst of this mess.  Where is Christ in the chaos?  Try this: resurrection.  Resurrection absorbs evil in ways humanity is incapable of framing.

How many of us were and are willing to go to jail to close any camp, whether with children or children and parents, instead of signing a petition or tweeting?  Cross bearing is hard, often fatal, and rarely rewarded.

Given the events of this week, is it time to start forcing Bonohoeffer and Selma moments?

Do we admit our short term mission in Central America and Latin America have done little to improve the quality of life in the countries we have attempted to serve?  The church’s evangelical zeal for cheap, easy mission trips in this hemisphere has done little to no long term good.  The crisis on our borders are evidence of Americas political, diplomatic, economic, and missiological failure.

There are no winners.  We are swimming in sin.  Like post war Germany, we all share a degree of guilt for the atrocities committed in our name.

Richard Bryant

Things I Learned from My Father

1. To try and be a good father to my own children

2. A healthy distrust for the evangelical subculture which dominates much of Protestantism

3. A love for dogs

4. To tell my mother “Thank You”

5. Responsibility

6. How to comb my hair

7. How to tie a bow-tie

8. The difference between being “whelmed” and “overwhelmed”

9. The third and most important part of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, reason. Does it make reasonable sense?

10. How to make slaw

Richard Bryant

Originally, There Was No Sin

Augustine – The Captain Morgan of the “Original Sin” Idea

1. Eating an apple handed to you by a snake in a garden?  No.  (Snakes don’t talk or have opposing thumbs.  Saint Augustine and his 4th century pals really made the idea of babies born with innate evil a “big deal”.)  Let’s keep going.

2. Separating immigrant children from their parents when the parents make an asylum application to enter the United States? Yes.  (BIG TIME SIN, WHAT WOULD JESUS THINK?)

3. Housing immigrant children, separated from their parents, concentrating them in camps, away from their families? Yes.  (BIG TIME SIN.  AGAIN, WHAT WOULD JESUS THINK?)

4. Denying appeals for asylum in the United States based on claims of domestic abuse or gang violence? Yes. (WOULD JESUS ENDORSE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE?  HELL NO!)

5. Marrying the person you love, even if the person you love is of the same gender? No.

6. A North Asian country with 270 GULAG style prison camps that executes, starves, and works people to death? Yes. (HUGE SIN, WHAT WOULD JESUS THINK?)

7. People who die while raising funds through a go fund me to pay for routine medical care? Yes. (ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  WHAT WOULD JESUS THINK?)

8. Over-prescribing opioids in rural areas? Yes. (NO WAY THAT JESUS ENDORSES DRUG ADDICTION?)

9. Sin is an unbreakable curse which has befallen all of humanity? No.  (JESUS CREATED HUMANITY! CURSES AREN’T IN HIS REPERTOIRE.)

10. God created us to love and be loved. Evil should be named and addressed. The antidote to sin is love.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jesus For People Who Have a Hard Time With Jesus

1. What do we know about Jesus’ birth? The historical Jesus was a Galilean, Jewish peasant born in the year 4 BC. Most scholars doubt he was actually born on December 25th. The early church gave Jesus this birthday many years later (and for a variety of reasons.) Perhaps the earlier date had been lost or forgotten. Some argue that pagan Roman festivals were already held on the 25th, so one might have merged with the other. What matters is this: Jesus enters human history around the year 4 BC.

2. How did Jesus die? He was crucified around the year 30 AD. He was executed by the Roman Governor of the Province of Judea. His name was Pontius Pilate. Jesus’ message and activities threatened and undermined the power of the religious and political authorities in Galilee and Judea.

3. Why did Jesus die? To some Jesus was too political. To others, Jesus was too religious. Some of his disciples wanted Jesus to be a military, political, and religious leader. It might be argued that Jesus died because he refused to be a general and wasn’t sufficient political or religious enough to please those who supported him.

4. What was Jesus’ message? Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. He preached that a time would soon come when God would make all things right, new, and just. The imminent coming of the Kingdom of God would mark a total disruption of the existing social, political, economic, and religious order. “On Earth, as it is in Heaven”, as Jesus describes the Kingdom in the Lord’s Prayer.

5. How did Jesus teach? Jesus was a storyteller. He taught in parables which resonated with the working people who lived in rural Galilee and Judea. These parables are stories rich in morality, deep in meaning, and could be easily retold. Jesus was not a preacher in the sense most Americans understand preaching.

6. Is Jesus a Christian? No, Jesus was not a Christian. God is not a Christian. God is God. Jesus had no idea about our modern concept of denominations. Jesus was a 1st century Palestinian Jew. Churches, over the past two thousand years, have made Jesus a Christian. Jesus is worshiped by Christians as the Christ (from the Greek word Χριστός, Christós which means “the anointed one” a translation from the Hebrew word “Messiah”). When he died, Jesus didn’t envision Christianity becoming a global religion. It was after well after Jesus’ death that his friends and associates took Jesus’ ideas beyond Galilee and Judea. Notably, Paul of Tarsus is credited with helping bring Jesus’ message to Gentiles (non-Jews) around the Roman Empire.

7. Is Jesus the Son of God? Yes. Are you the Child of God? Yes. We are all God’s children.

8. Was Jesus aware that he was God’s son? I’ll answer with another question. Are you aware of the presence of God working in you? I hope so.

9. Is Jesus in Heaven? The resurrection is a living reality. Jesus is everywhere. God works in a divine milieu, to paraphrase the French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. Jesus is all around us if we’ll only take time to notice. We’re missing Jesus in the present if we are caught caught up searching for a medieval image of heaven.

10. Who were Jesus’ disciples? Jesus’ closest friends and neighbors became his disciples. Through the work of the disciples, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom becomes a reality. Jesus himself is not the kingdom. We, all of God’s children, help our brother Jesus build the Kingdom of God. This is what disciples do. We are the disciples.

Richard Lowell Bryant