A Funeral Homily (Jesus, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young)

“Jesus wept.”

John 11:35

Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud
I am lonely
I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are
You make it hard
Remember what we’ve said and done and felt about each other
Oh, babe have mercy
Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now
I am not dreaming
I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are
You make it hard

-Stephen Stills and Judy Collins

What do we need to be reminded of today? What might we carry with us as we depart from this service?

A few thoughts come to mind. First, we all encounter loss on our terms. We have gathered together, but the experience is different for each person. Grief is intensely personal and is not a choice.

We cannot opt out of mourning. Grief arrives expected and sometimes by surprise. Sometimes sorrow presents itself when we feel prepared. The truth is we are never ready. Despite efforts to put our ducks in a row and stiffen our upper lips, days like today (and the ones which preceded it) are sight readings. We go out and do our best. One cannot rehearse for grief. You can embrace or ignore try to grief. You can’t lie about its reality. To turn our backs on grief and ignore our emotions is to sever parts of our humanity from a soul that aches for comfort.

Grief isn’t optional; our humanity shouldn’t be either. Acknowledging our sadness is essential. It is also vital we laugh and tell stories. It’s all woven together; an incredible, yet visible opportunity to celebrate and be inspired to live the rest of our own lives.

Services like this remind us of our mortality. As we honor one life well lived, we get the gift of realizing our lives aren’t permanent fixtures on planet Earth. That’s good. We need the occasional swift kick in the mortality pants. We operate under the assumption that if life is good (we even sell t-shirts with that logo), death must be wrong. I’m not trying to make light of suffering, pain, or tragedy. However, I do want to say that there’s something about death which gives meaning to life.

A few weeks ago I downloaded an app to my phone called, “We Croak.” The developers were inspired by a Himalayan Buddhist tradition which teaches that contemplating death five times a day brings happiness. So five times a day, without warning, I receive a message on the phone (like a text message or notification) that says, “Reminder: You are going to die. Click here for a quote.” Most of the time, I ignore it. I admit there are times I don’t want to remember that I am going to die. Then at other instances, when I’m zoned out on Twitter or looking at stuff on Amazon, it suddenly pops up, “Reminder: you’re going to die.” I click on the quote, and it says, “The whole future lies in uncertainty live immediately.”  It’s just what I need to see.

Today, we have the opportunity to see and hear a unique message. Life is fleeting. We should not live life with uncertainty, without compassion, empathy, or moral ambiguity.
Maybe you’re in a rush to make the ferry or merely living in too much of a hurry. The button pops up. You’ll be amazed at how confronting your mortality, beyond this time and place, will change the way you live. That’s one more gift we receive by gathering this afternoon. We have the opportunity to walk out of here and live more meaningful lives.

Many on this island don’t need an app. The truth of your mortality is something you know all too well. Whether it’s receiving a diagnosis or living through loss, you know that life is delicate, even on a good day. The more fragile our lives become, the easier it is to find gratitude in simple gifts. In our weakness, there lies strength. In the exquisite balance of this moment, we can reach out and find a means to say thank you to our friends, our families, and neighbors.  In grief, live joy.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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10 Reasons Why People Leave Church

1) They were never really “there” in the first place. The church was a way station between soccer practice, scouts, and the other stops in our over-scheduled lives. Church seems, for a time, like the right thing to do. After a while, the incessant moralizing and demands to volunteer grow difficult for many people to manage. Other parts of their lives, like volunteering (at school) comes without the tinges of guilt and people talking about (however occasionally) heaven and hell.

2) Ritualized singing is awkward. The only other places on earth where people sing together, en masse, the same songs, are English football games. Church shares this unique commonality with football hooligans from Leeds and Liverpool. The strangeness of singing either repetitive praise choruses or 18th-century hymnody, in public, may rub the modern person the wrong way. If someone is hurt, broken, and seeking purpose in their life; enter our building and sing with strangers! That’s a big ask.

3) Have you seen what I wear on Sunday morning? I dress like Dumbledore. That may strike folks not used to traditional liturgical worship as odd. This could run a few people off. Harry Potter fans love it! My Ordinary Time stole is a Slytherin scarf.

4) We fight like cats and dogs in meetings over really inane stuff. Have you been to a church meeting lately? If people want to fight, they’ll eat dinner at home with their kids.

5) People find new churches. We have to compete with the gym church, the football game church, the golf church, the fishing church, the boat church, and any number of things people worship. These other churches provide community, potlucks, and they don’t ask you to sing.

6) Some people are fickle and mean. When their meanness gets exposed, people leave.  I think this works both ways.  People leave when they encounter meanness and hostility.  Some also leave when they realize their meanness won’t be tolerated in a Christian community.

7) People join political parties, fishing teams, alumni associations, golf clubs, and social groups; yet they don’t like the idea of traditional denominations having a larger institutional identity.  When the church becomes more than a bland, generic, or cookie cutter version of every other church, they leave.

8) It takes a boatload of money to keep us going.  Even the smallest church is expensive to run.  People decide to spend their money elsewhere.  It’s the economy, stupid.

9) People leave the church because you didn’t cast their child in the Christmas play.  Most times it is not unanswered existential questions about suffering, the preacher’s politics, or anything so grand.  It’s the little things.

10) People leave the church because they read too many Dan Brown novels.  They believe the worst about Christianity and we don’t give them any reason to think any differently.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Mending Our Nets

Net Mending, School Road, Ocracoke, Fall 2018

Matthew 4:21-25

21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Sometimes I travel in time by arriving at the church. It happened once again this morning. I got out of my car, looked behind me and saw my neighbor mending his nets. It’s a fairly typical scene on Ocracoke. Many people still make their living by commercial fishing. Net mending is not only a regular occurrence it’s also a practical necessity. Somehow, this morning, it looked a little different. Right across the street from the church, stretched across my neighbor’s drive, was one long net. I thought, “This is what it looked like.” What did what look like? I saw the call to discipleship at ground zero.

Net mending hasn’t changed in two thousand years. The fishermen on the Sea of Galilee mended their nets in the same traditional way as those who fish the waters of Ocracoke. Fishing is fishing. I realized (and I’m not sure why) that I’m standing in the place where Jesus’ disciples made the decision to follow Jesus. It’s not the fishermen mending their nets by the Galilee; it is the action of the fishermen mending their nets. From a place like this Jesus calls people like us. There are no metaphors, similes, or comparisons needed to help our modern minds apply the difficult teachings of the ancient world. All I had to do was walk across the road and wait to be called. Given what’s going on these days, Jesus will be along any minute. I wonder, am I ready to go?

Richard Lowell Bryant

No One Is The Greatest (Mark 9:30-37)

In the 9th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks one of the most critical questions of his life. It’s one that churches ought to post over sanctuaries, altars, and Sunday school classrooms. I know I give weight and almost hyperbolic importance to nearly everything Jesus says or does. However, this one is right near the top.

Allow me to set the scene. Jesus and the disciples are still in and around Capernaum. When they had entered a house (we don’t know whose home), Jesus asked them a question. “What were you arguing about during the journey?” That’s the question. You’ll find it in Mark 9:33.

We know that question like the back of your hand. It’s been a long journey, drowned out by radio fights and the occasional loud, unintelligible argument. Once you pull into the driveway, there is a moment of peace and a deep breath of relaxation. You are home. As you step from the car and make your way toward the gate, the steps, and the door the rumblings once contained to the car slowly emerge from those who managed to grab much less luggage from the back of the vehicle. It is then you realize that whatever argument or disagreement that ruined the last three hours of your car ride is about to cross the threshold into your home. The dispute about someone’s makeup, a text message, or who is in a relationship with “you know who” is not going to stay in the car. It’s nowhere, with you, blocking your way to the bathroom. Hence you feel the need to ask the question, “What were you arguing about during the journey?”

You know what the argument was about. Jesus knew what the disciples were discussing. He wanted to hear them say it. It was important, as we tell our children, for them to use their words. What did they think they were discussing? With some distance and a bit of perspective, what were they fighting about? Here’s where it gets silly. I know this will seem unbelievable. The disciples were debating each other on who is the “greatest.” Yes, that sounds utterly ridiculous. Grown men were debating one another about who is the “greatest” in the “Muhammad Ali” sense of the word. Can you imagine such nonsense? It seems so out of character for religious people to be concerned about achieving “greatness” in heaven or the afterlife.  Jesus is not concerned with status in the same way as corporate America or the Roman Empire. My mind is blown.

No, it’s not. Nothing about this passage surprises me. What does amaze me is how infrequently we read Mark 9 and how we seem never to apply Jesus’ question to our own lives. “What were you arguing about during the journey?”

Who is the greatest Methodist?
Who is the most significant Christian?
Who are the legitimate heirs to John Wesley?
Who is the most revered teacher of tradition?
Who is the holiest interpreter of ancient doctrine?

There’s never been a more appropriate question for Methodists to ask each other. We’re all on a journey, and we’re doing an excellent job trying to convince ourselves (through various commissions and reports) that we’re not arguing with another. We know what we’re doing. No one is fooled. As one who loves a good argument, I admit this without hesitation or reservation.

Here’s the problem: if our arguments slide into calls for supremacy, superiority, and salvation through an understanding of our own prestige, you’re no longer following Jesus. An idea of one’s greatness mixed with a smug sense of self-satisfaction at possessing a monopoly on God’s truth will not lead us to the least or the last. Prominence does not lead to the Cross, flooded towns, separated families or anywhere the suffering call home.

Whatever greatness is, Jesus indicates at the end of this passage, it is the opposite of welcome. To seek influence is to build barriers between Jesus and those who need Jesus most. Power makes it challenging to welcome strangers. As we compete for preeminence in our churches and denomination, we are less able to embrace the most vulnerable members of our community. Greatness comes at a cost. We give up being the church. To remain the church we want to be we lose the ability to be the church Christ called us to be. The choice is stark, we can either be “great,” or we can be followers of Jesus.

Is there really a debate to be had?  I hope not.  Oh, if you’d like to argue with me about how non-great I am, I’ll be outside.

Richard Lowell Bryant

It Is Hard To Say “Amen”

 

My problem is not with prayer. I have so many prayers I need to pray. The prayers come easy, almost too easy. I can generate prayers in much the same way an application on the internet creates stupid names for churches or sermons. Words are cheap. Good sentiments are almost free.  I don’t have trouble praying. The hard part, for me, is saying “Amen.”

Once I mumble “amen” I’m on the hook. “Amen” means I’ve made the prayer more than words. Something which started as a two-dimensional rap session between me and my conception of God has now taken on a three-dimensional reality. “Amen” makes me accountable for the words I’ve said. No matter how silly or profound, once an “amen” is attached, my thoughts are now being held in the form of sacred escrow. I can’t touch or reach them until I’ve found some point of spiritual maturity. That might be today, tomorrow, or even next week. Whenever it is, an “amen” guarantees that I must speak words I deem sacred enough to call “prayer” and share them with God. Without the “amen,” prayer is no different than giving Santa Claus a list of all the toys you want for Christmas. You have no investment in your desires. Handing over a list and expecting all your wishes to be granted isn’t a prayer. It’s yelling at the universe and hoping God will give you wishes like a genie in a bottle.

“Amen” changes the dynamic in prayer. Both the person praying and the God hearing the prayer are involved in answering the prayer. We pray the prayer. We become the prayer. We become the answer to our own prayers. It’s through the action of the “amen” that we decide to take our concerns and celebrations to a level beyond ourselves. An “amen,” by its very nature, is a statement of purpose. We are willing to invite others into becoming part of our prayer.

Speaking with God is not easy. This is especially true for mild-mannered Methodists. Placing ourselves in a position to hear those around us and express our heart to God in times of crisis is no picnic. It was one of Moses’ greatest struggles. Pronouncing “amen” is also a challenge.  It is hard to say “amen.”  In one way, it’s like hitting send on an email. Once it’s gone, the message takes on a life of its own. Are we ready for God to take us seriously? After all, who are we to say such an important word like “amen”? I’ll tell you who we are.  We are those over whom many an “amen” has already been said. We are blessings so we might go be blessings in a world aching to be blessed.

Amen

Richard Lowell Bryant

What Do We Do Next? (A Post Florence Reflection)

What can we do now? We’ve got a variety of options. For the time being, we are confined to watching and waiting. The situation with the roads and the ferries which link us to the world around place us in a precarious position. Although we suffered limited damage, compared to others, we can’t be reached or reach out. This will soon change.

I am reminded of one of the underlying messages of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We cannot immediately fix things, but we can sit in the ditch with others. This is an idea which emerges from within the story. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by thieves. The road, while open and traveled, was known to be dangerous. Victims regularly reported robberies, assaults, and murders. Roving gangs of thieves were known to work the roads, hiding in wait to ambush unsuspecting travelers.

For whatever reason, this man made the decision to walk the Jericho road alone. Before sunset on the first day, he was spotted, followed, and attacked. The ambush was swift and easy. Stripped and beaten, he was robbed of his material possessions. Luke tells us he was “half-dead.” I’ve always gotten hung up on the idea of being “half-dead.” After storms like Florence, Matthew, and witnessing humanitarian crises in the former Yugoslavia, Armenia, and Liberia; it really makes sense. Following a disaster, war, or severe illness we are beaten down, robbed of our material goods, our sense of self-worth, and we feel half alive. Somewhere between living the life we thought we knew and the present we’re experiencing, life is only a fraction of what we once experienced or defined as a whole.

Our house may be half full of water, or our bodies may be half full of cancer or our lives may be half full of love. For whatever reason, circumstances descended upon the road we were traveling and left us in a place we never thought we would be.

Now that we’re here, half dead in the ditch, who are we waiting on? Is it the Good Samaritan? Are we waiting for someone to solve our problem, fix our situation, and bring us back to “full” life? Or does our healing take a different form? Perhaps someone will come alongside us and be present with us in our half-ness, not try to fix us, and offer empathy and companionship even while we’ll still sitting in the ditch.

I hope so. The Samaritan encounters the wounded man. Because of prejudice and ritualized discrimination, he lives half a life as a way of life. Notably, he arrives on the scene after others have observed the reality of suffering and chosen not to help. For reason of piety, arrogance, and pride, they decided not to get involved in the sufferings of others. The Samaritan made a different decision.

We know about the Samaritan taking the man to an inn and offering to pay for medical care. However, what came first? Before he arranged for his care, he bandaged his wounds. Before dressing his injuries, he sat in the ditch and listened. The Samaritan is merely present with the man’s needs without trying to solve any more significant issues. Perhaps both men needed to sit together in the ditch and weep before the substantial question of restoring wholeness could be asked.

The story of the Good Samaritan is not only a parable of doing the right thing. It’s also about becoming vulnerable sitting with each other in moments of great pain and weakness. Many people (even before the hurricane) were in such places. It’s easy to be the hurricane, death, emotional, relationship, insurance, chainsaw, flooding expert. Tragedies are full of “Captain Obvious’ of the Moment”.  You can pontificate and tell people everything you know about the crisis without really opening yourself up to actually listening to the pain of the people you’re talking too. It’s harder to stop talking and listen.

The Saga of a Florentine Refugee

A beast with hundreds of horsepower has saddled up and has decided to ride west. Unleashing an apocalyptic fury on the open water, she twists and turns. Unlike the drunken stupor of Margaritaville bound Buffet fans moving from island to island, this machine glides with the slow, deliberate force of death. There is no executive order or emergency declaration which she will heed. She is coming, with her outlying riders of destruction and doom. And once you’ve stepped inside, rode hard, and given everything you know to the water; there is no going back. The beast owns you and you’re never going back.

One day, when the winds die down and the waters recede, the survivors will emerge from the ruins of our towns and villages. We will survey the damage. It will not be pretty. A modern-day Moses’ will release a drone from a bunker in the foothills of the western Appalachians. The digital bird of civilization will review the rubble and remains. Teams will begin rearranging rocks and moving trees in an attempt to regain control over a world that was never ours to dominate gives us a sense of purpose. We will speak of community, helping, neighbors, and pulling together. No one will utter the words climate change.

The great lie this beast brings to our shores is that it acts alone. We are led to believe Florence and her gang are an isolated event.  They collude with no one.  Florence is merely a larger than expected dot on a yearly cycle destruction and emergency management. These are lies. We are complicit in telling a lie. Florence represents the changing nature of our planet. It’s getting harder to sustain life in places in which we’ve taken as our God-given right to exist. That’s the truth. We’re complicit in denying the truth. While Christians will show great hospitality and compassion over the coming days as we respond to the needs of those impacted by this storm; our planet has real hospitality issues. Humanity is wearing out our welcome.

Until the beast turns north and rides into the sunset, we watch and wait. We heed and prepare. Store shelves are empty while panic gently ensues. Today, the roar of the beast’s engines isn’t as faint as they were yesterday. The plywood boards go up over the windows. Finally, our souls become obsequiously submissive to a randomly named metrological entity that has the power to kill us all. With each of these storms, there’s more on the line than any of us realize.

Be safe, be well, be blessed

Richard Lowell Bryant