The Hardest Thing About Being a Christian? Washing Your Hands (Mark 7)

What is the hardest thing about being a Christian? It may be coming to church each week and being forced to listen to me drone on about religious stuff. Perhaps it’s making what we say, do, and sing impact your life beyond these four walls. You could be concerned about putting the right amount of church time in so you get in good with the big guy but you still want to go fishing and you really want me to move it along. (Whether or not God is taking attendance is another sermon altogether, I’ll come back to that one.)

Maybe the hardest thing for you is dealing with nitpicking, holier than thou, got it all figured out, and are confident they know Jesus personally types of Christians. I find this difficult. This is what the first few verses of Mark 7 are about. Jesus runs into a group of people who are pretty sure they have a pipeline to God and know far more than Jesus does.

You know the type of person I’m talking about. Is nit-picker too gentle a word? I mean people whose version of Christianity (or religion) is limited to and experienced within three or four very narrow choices: Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi. That’s the world they live in. Everything must be limited to these four options. If those alternatives aren’t available or people chose a different choice, then those who pick Diet Sprite, Mountain Dew, and Canada Dry are either doing sodas (religion) wrong or it’s as if they drinking nothing at all. They might as well be doing without. If you can’t have Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, or Diet Pepsi you’re not drinking anything officially blessed by the soda fountain God.

The CDPD crowd (Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi) were opposed to Jesus. If he’d suggested free health care, balloon rides, and meals for everyone over 65 they would have found religious and social reasons to object to his ideas. It didn’t matter what Jesus said. In their eyes, Jesus was always going to be wrong. He wasn’t drinking Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, or Diet Pepsi. He brought fresh water, wine, and Diet Mountain Dew to the party. You see how low they were willing to go to find something wrong with his actions in this passage. Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands correctly.

Here’s what you need to know: ritual purification and cleanliness are a big deal in Old Testament law. In fact, the reason it became a ritual probably had more to do with the notion that purity saves lives and prevents the spread of disease. Eventually, this public health idea becomes wrapped up in concepts of religiosity. You can imagine how what might have been washing your hands with water and prayer evolved into a more elaborate ritual. A can of Coke suddenly became a limited edition two liter that needed to be poured in a special cup in a sacred way. Are you getting the picture?

Now we got them, said the Coke people. We’ve got them on a health code violation. Jesus may have thought he was something, making bread appear from nowhere, casting out demons, and healing sick people. We’ll show him, by gum! You know you’re dealing with crazy people when they think the best way to stop Jesus is the ancient equivalent of Gomer Pyle making a “citizen’s arrest.”

Mark is quick to point out that Jesus did follow the law, even the hand washing proscriptions. It’s just that he and disciples didn’t do it in the old school, most traditional, Old School, way you great-great grandparents learned how do drink Diet Coke way when they were leaving Egypt way. Mark says if they went to the market, they took a shower before having a meal. I’d say that’s better than washing only your hands, right? On top of that, they cleaned all of their dishes; their cups, jugs, pans, and even their sleeping bags. These disciples were the cleanest group of single men you’ve ever met. But not according to the holier-than-thou nitpickers. The law, (Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi only rules) specify you must wash your hands in a specific way before eating. It doesn’t matter that the disciples have taken a full-on shower (i.e., provided their own Coke Zero). And so the Pharisees respond, “Mr. Jesus and your group of ne’er-do-well disciples have broken our shared religious law.” Doesn’t this kind of thing just get under your skin? And to think, Jesus has to deal with these kinds of shenanigans every day.

This is why I believe the hardest thing about being a Christian for us was also the hardest thing for Jesus. Jesus encountered difficulty, know-it-all people, too religious for their own good, and determined to use God as a means to alienate and judge others rather than bring people together.

It’s the showdown at the Galilee Corral. The Piety Police have confronted Jesus and the disciples. They are not washing their hands. Showers do not count. The Bible says their hands must be clean. How dare they contradict the Bible is such an explicit way. If people defy the Bible over hand washing today, what will they be doing tomorrow, wearing polyester?

Jesus answers the Pharisee’s assault with prophecy and practicality. In verse six he says, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words.'”

Wow. Next, Jesus places his own spin on the verse: You ignore God’s commandments while holding on to the rules created by humans and handed down to you. That’s how you get nitpickers, holier than thou, hand washing, Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi people. It was a 1st-century problem and it’s a 21st-century problem. We are as guilty as the Pharisees of creating a faith of limited means to access and follow God. If it doesn’t fit into the spiritual equivalent of Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, or Diet Pepsi, we don’t know what to do. And when pressed to offer more choices, we argue, debate, or panic, instead of providing a new flavor or means of meeting God.

When we ignore God’s good ideas to make rules we claim God created, endorsed, wrote, or delivered when God had nothing to do with those so-called laws in the first place; we create rituals and deem activities holy that have no place in our lives as people of faith.   Yes, Jesus was correct.  Nitpickers love to enforce rules they created.

Jesus ends the debate by reminding each of us that what makes us dirty (or unclean) is not the grime on our hands or bodies. It’s what on the inside. That’s where the real filth is. The one thing we need to wash is the human heart, the human soul, or our conscience. That’s what divides us from the world around us. Physical contamination is simple to tackle. Spiritual corruption can’t really be addressed by soap and water. We need prayer, and an embrace of the Grace Jesus offers. We need to make it easier for people to be welcomed in God’s house and follow Jesus. Life is hard enough, the church doesn’t need to make life more difficult.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Jesus Takes All The Fun Out of Being Methodist

Jesus takes all the fun out of being United Methodist and religious. Don’t those two go together?  How are people going to know we are Holy Methodists unless we dress alike (custom UMC t-shirts of some nature), pray in public, make grand displays of our faith in the public sphere, Facebook every mission-related activity, and invoke God in every conversation?  Has Jesus not been an evangelism seminar?  Jesus needs to offer coffee, small groups, and a service for men who can’t tuck their shirts in.  Moms need a morning out and Jesus needs to say more about the sanctity of straight people being married.  What is he, some snowflake libtard?  Public piety and a healthy sense of religiosity define one’s Christianity.

Just kidding!  LOL!  I know they don’t but you’ve got to be honest, even on our best days, it’s a distinction we have trouble making.  Just take a look at this:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”  Matthew 6:1-7

If we can’t practice our piety in public to be seen by others, how are we going to recruit (sorry, I mean evangelize) others to join our churches?  Especially when institutional trust in religion is at an all-time low.  Public practices of piety are our stock in trade.  We would collapse and die without publicity.  We give evangelism awards and applaud each other on the back for cookie sales.  Those are public displays of piety.  We brand everything, from disaster relief ministries to youth events.  We have idolized the corporations and corporate practices that are bankrupting our communities.  Yes, we’re giving to the poor but these giving actions are preceded by the trumpet sound of car magnets, t-shirts, and official name badges.  We don’t call “practicing our piety before others”; we’ve cleaned it up and use the term “witnessing”.

Everyone prays differently.  Cokesbury’s catalog is dominated by books on different methods of prayer.  I think Jesus says:  don’t use your prayer time to make other people uncomfortable.  Just as he says don’t make a big deal out of what you do (focus instead on the how-Jesus is big on methodology), the way you communicate to God is intensely personal.  Do what’s right for you but don’t weird other people out with your words or actions when you pray.  Don’t be a spectacle.  Spectacles are for other people to see.  Who is your audience when you talk to God?  Here’s a thought:  give God the privacy and time God deserves.  Keep your password protected, like you would any sensitive communication.

Religious people love clichés.  (If someone tells me they’re going to put a hedge of protection around me I’m going for the weedeater.) Jesus has heard them all.  Be a better speaker and writer by using fewer clichés.  The same thing goes for prayers.  I know it feels fun, especially when you get on a roll and the “father gods, we just wannas, and hosannas” start to roll off your tongue.  Maybe Jesus is burnt out on hearing so many repeated phrases.  Try saying what’s on your mind.  It doesn’t make you any holier, more religious, or smarter.  Talk to Jesus.  Spit it out.  Drop the jargon.  It’s you Jesus wants, not the Dollar Store trinkets you’re bringing along.

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Marks of a Metho-Fascist

The Wesleyan Covenant Association is asking in a new publication, “Are We Better Together?”  If by “we” they mean the United Methodist Church, I’m guessing they say “no”.  They’d prefer to be with people who think like them and those who don’t share their views, according to a press release I read last week, aren’t really Christian or following Jesus Christ.

For those who choose a different path, is it possible to be in a connectional relationship with those who hold such a narrow definition of Christian tradition and doctrine?  As much as I embrace the One Church Plan, it’s also difficult for me to see any option that involves staying in a rump denomination that marries a puritanical form of Methodism with basic fascism.

At some point, the fence riding and proposal forwarding will end.  We cannot go on like this forever.  Decisions will be made.  Those eventual judgments will not be the outcomes of committees, delegates, or bishops.  Instead, the consciences of individual clergy and laity will decide not, “Are we better together?” but “Are we going to be Metho-fascists?” Here are a few questions we might ask to see how far we’ve gone down the fascist road.

What are the marks of the growth of fascism in the church?

Are we falling prey to the demagoguery?

Is it easy to be swayed by proof texting?

Will we be distracted and allow the church to be reorganized along lines foreign to Christ’s mission and ministry?

Is the language of hate and the subtle rhetoric of violence now common in our collective discussions of our future?

Will we be distracted by ephemeral issues that take our focus away from the marginalized (the hungry, the poor, immigrants, those without health care)?

Will we fall victim to a warped theology of denominational chauvinism and superiority?

Jesus directly confronted the fascism embodied by the Roman empire and its imperial ideology.  Jesus died violently at the hands of a fascist, imperial state.  Will we continue Jesus’ legacy of opposing fascism?

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

 

On the Death of the Good, Great, and those In Between

I am finding it harder to pray for my enemies.  It’s difficult enough to watch good people die from evil diseases.  Death is made all that much harder when the frailties of human nature fail us at the point which defines our humanity.  Death is the common denominator.  We are all going to die, one way or another.

It seems that in one way or another our petty grudges and animosities might be laid aside when we die.  Nice things might be said, courtesies extended, hands shook, and hugs offered.  Yet in 2018 even that is too much to ask.  Humanity, kindness, and decency are deemed signs of weakness and political compromise.  I should qualify that last sentence.  Humanity, kindness, and basic decency have evaporated for about half of the voting age population.  While that’s not everyone, it’s enough to see, feel, and notice the change in our society.  It’s painful to watch.  It hurts to see good people experience the back hand of ill intended remarks and self-righteous comments.  Civic death, for what it’s worth, is no longer sacred.

Hence, I’m back to my dilemma.  With life loosing value and death becoming another event to be manipulated (like elections and press conferences), I’m finding it hard to pray for the manipulators.  Yes, I pray for the families of the deceased.  I pray for those wounded by hate and the rhetoric of violence.  Above all, I am finding it difficult to pray for those whose souls are not moved by death and loss in the most human sense.  The words I need and I’m called to find for those who have placed themselves beyond decency and self-respect, are not there.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

 

Mid-Life Posers on the Monday Morning Highway of Life (Summer Songs Volume IV)

 

Middle aged man with the skateboard,
It’s time to buy two things
A Car and a pair shoes,
Looking cool are you, no
Holding up traffic, yes you do.
The angry man in the Volkswagen,
The bald guy in the driver’s seat,
That’s me and I’m late for my
Mahatma Gandhi study group to meet.

–Richard Bryant

How Does Psalm 84 Feel? (A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein on His 100th Birthday)

Tomorrow is Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, in honor of his life and work, I thought I’d use the ideas from the “Young People’s Concert-What Does Music Mean” and apply to  better understanding scriptural text, Psalm 84.  

What does music mean?  Leonard Bernstein used to say that music doesn’t mean a thing.  Music is just the right combination of notes, arranged in a pattern to evoke particular feelings.  Music may be inspired by certain situations and events (historical, personal, or otherwise).  But when it comes right down to it, the notes, when they’re placed on the page, mean nothing until they’re placed in relation to other notes.  Then, they work together and they might make us feel happy, sad, angry, conflicted, or any other number of emotions.  Alone, a note is a note.  Combined with other notes, we have harmonies. The harmonies themselves do not tell stories.  We provide the stories based off the images and experiences in our lives.  The composer may have had one idea when he or she wrote a symphony or an opera but once the piece is out there, floating in the ether, we start to plug our experiences into to their notes.  Remember, the notes have no meaning. We hear them, as individuals, and give them meaning.  This is the power of music.  This is also the joy of scripture.

Music makes us feel. Notes without meaning (tones in isolation), when married to other notes in the right combination, create emotional reactions.  For example, what do you feel when you hear this?

(God of Grace and God of Glory)

That’s kind of rousing.  It’s one of my favorite hymns.  The tune is from Wales.  In fact you can almost imagine Welsh miners singing other words, perhaps in a pub, to this song.  It gets your blood stirring.  You may feel you want to move, stand, and do something.  You may feel inspired.  There’s sort of a march lying underneath the melody.

How about this one?  (288 Were You There When They Crucified My Lord)

You feel something totally different.  This is 180 degrees opposite from the first tune.  It is slower.  It makes you feel sad, lonely, depressed, and maybe even a little hopeless.  Perhaps it reminds of a time in your life you might want to forget.  The notes are a little plodding.  That plodding has always reminding me of the horses that used to take caskets to the grave.  The feeling you get when you hear this song is nothing at all like the first.  While the first may work like an earworm and stick with you all day, this one, you don’t want these feelings to linger.

Again, I want to remind you how your feelings changed so quickly.  The notes, many of them were the same.  We changed from a major key (G) to a minor key (C minor) and more than anything that made all the difference in the world.  The notes themselves mean nothing; however when we put them together and make that shift from one sharp to three flats, the entire realm of human emotions is up for grabs.

How does the song make us feel?  Where does it take us?  When it’s all put together, how does it make us feel?  This is what music has asked of listeners since the beginning of time.

The Bible asks the same question and then goes one question further.  How does this text make you feel?  Secondly, what are you going to do with this feeling? In other words, how will you respond to what you feel?

There’s no better place to see this at work and ask these questions than in the Bible’s music book, the Psalms.  The Psalms are poems, prayers, and songs.  While we don’t have notes in the conventional musical sense, something that can be played on a piano, guitar or other instrument; the words are our notes.  Whether they are written in Hebrew, English, or some other translated language, these words are words.  In their own right, they do not tell a story on their own.  When compiled, the author or writers might have been inspired by certain ideas, events, and people.  Yet, as we know with any good song, what spoke to that songwriter (let’s call him David) may not speak to us.  We’re not walking in his sandals.  David’s life can’t be contained in the words he chooses or even the melody he might have sung.  The words stand for themselves because we will hear them as we hear them, not as David felt them.  His words will make us feel, not what he feels, but what we feel.  What does this Psalm make us feel?

How does Psalm 84 make you feel?  It’s unlike some of the guilt ridden Psalms David wrote after his adultery with Bathsheba.  This one is decidedly different.  There’s almost something of a burden being lifted and ability to talk to God without the sins of the past getting in the way.

It makes me feel at home.  I think it should, given that it’s talking about a “dwelling place”.  Call it a house, cottage, trailer, camper, or whatever.  There is a sense of belonging in this Psalm.  I hear this and I feel like I belong.  I remember places where I felt I belonged.  By that I remember places of unconditional love in places of unconditional belonging; my grandmother’s house, the home I grew up in, and the church where I was baptized.  Each of those places was marked by being “truly happy”.  How do you feel, hearing those words, “truly happy?”  Home, truly, and happy are all placed together in the same Psalm.  Individually, their meanings could go in countless directions.  Together, they harmonize and create a distinction which is unavoidable.  Is the idea of being truly happy in a place we can call home something we’re able to associate with God?  Is this what the Psalmist is asking us to feel?

Yes.  When I listen and hear Psalm 84, this is what I feel reminded of the presence of God in the places I call home.  There’s a famous verse that’s often quoted from Psalm 84.  Verse 10 says, “Better is a single day in your courtyards than a thousand days anywhere else.” Most people stop there.  However, the verse goes on, “I would prefer to stand outside the entrance of my God’s house than life comfortably in the tents of the wicked.”  This makes me feel justified in being a homebody.  I rather not live in a tent that belonged to God or the wicked.  Staying home with Jesus and my family is more than alright with me.  I don’t feel unsettled or threatened by any of this.  I feel God knows me for who I am and is fine with me being me.

Perhaps that’s why I feel so encouraged by the last few verses, “The Lord gives-doesn’t withhold-good things to those who walk with integrity.  Lord of heavenly forces, those who trust in you are truly happy.”

I do feel truly happy when I hear Psalm 84.  I am taken back to places I’ve called home.  I feel good to know that God’s always been in the picture.  I feel comforted that God loves me.  I feel like God’s not going to make me go camping and that the Lord is fine with me being me.  That’s what I feel.  It’s what I heard.  How about you?

Richard Lowell Bryant

Don’t Check Your Brain When You Sign the Rental Agreement

NOT the Entrance to Howard Street, Ocracoke Island

Where I live,
The place I sleep,
You need to know,
It’s a one way street,
I don’t care what the DOT states,
It’s a path,
A road,
And not on a map,
That being said,
It’s narrow and scary,
Unpaved,
And man on the golf cart,
It goes THAT WAY!

–Richard Bryant