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

Do The Right Thing (Mark 7:24-37)

This passage is painful to read.  It hurts in much the same way it does to read a newspaper article about a person of color being mistakenly shot by a police officer or someone attacked because of they wore clothing identifying themselves as members of a particular religious faith.  Do you know what I mean?  When you read those stories, one can feel a palpable sense of pain at a visceral level.  For me, Mark 7:24-37 has that same effect.

Mark touches on any number of issues relevant to Jesus’ time and our own.  There’s a glaring #MeToo moment driving the action in the passage.  A woman from a different ethnic and linguistic group, bound by poverty, and a mother to a disabled child encounters misogyny of the first order; all from the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  There is racism in this passage.  Ideas of race run through this entire story.  How do we know this?  This encounter takes us beyond the Mason-Dixon Line dividing Judea and Galilee.  When Mark says, “Jesus left that place and went to the region of Tyre,” he crossed an international, cultural, linguistic, economic, and social border.  He went to another country.  Jesus went somewhere so close to home yet on the other the side an imagined line where everything was different.  The food, the smells, the history, and the traditions derived from places unfamiliar to Jesus’ own Galilean heritage.  Jesus came from the dominant culture to the east (or as we would say, to the north).  Perhaps, this is why he wanted to go somewhere where he was the odd man out.  Those around him looked different, spoke another language, and didn’t know much of the man from Galilee hiding in their midst.

Mark highlights their differences because he wants his readers to notice these distinctions.  He is telling us that Jesus is aware of these characteristics.  He’s asking, “Is there anything wrong with being a Syro-Phoenician, Greek-speaking, Brown-skinned woman?” No, there is not.  It’s only a problem when someone with those characteristics crosses paths with a misogynist Rabbi from Galilee.  Jesus’ makes her identity a problem.  That’s why reading this passage hurts.  You can say he’s having a bad day.  You can say he’s angry or only wants to be left alone.  In the end, the sad truth is that Jesus looks like a misogynist and a racist.  We should stop trying to explain Jesus’ conduct.

Jesus is awful to the woman from Tyre.  I wish she had a name.  We know Jesus’ name, Mark’s name, and she’s identified by her ethnic group.  Tell me there’s not racism in the Bible.  The Bible is one of the best books at merging misogyny and racism into one action.  What does she do?  She approaches him (ostensibly on his vacation) and asks him to remove a demon from her daughter.

This didn’t sit well with Jesus.  After all, he’d left the United States of Galilee to get some time away from healings and needy people.  The Son of God needs a break.  You’ve got to be kidding me.  When you’re the Son of God, that’s not an excuse I’m willing to accept.  The creator of the universe never gets to say no to a mother with a demon; even on vacation.

Jesus calls her a dog.  I also have no patience for Jesus calling anybody, let alone a woman, a dog.  He said, “the children have to be fed first (meaning the children of Israel)”.  She, being a foreigner, wasn’t a child of Israel, therefore a dog.  Did he forget that he’s in her country?  So let’s add rude to misogynist and racist.  He is calling her a dog in her own country.  Jesus is the foreigner in this situation.  That’s like the President going to Mexico City to raise money for the wall.

The woman is quick-witted.  She’s also nicer than most people would be in this situation.  “Lord,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  “Good Answer!”  Jesus says.  Was this some kind of trivia game?  It reminds me of a Bond villain trying to outsmart Sean Connery.   We hear sassy.  I hope she was mad.

Somehow this jolted Jesus back to a sense of compassion.  Jesus performed one of his trademark long-distance healings.  Mark tells us that she returned to her home to find her daughter well and the demon was gone.  So what do we do now?  Is this merely a weird story where Jesus comes off looking bad and we forget it ever happened?

What is this really about?  There is a good side and an offensive side to Jesus.  It’s essential for us to acknowledge both exist.  We don’t need to justify our worse impulses and awful behavior by pointing to the horrible things Jesus did in the passage.  This behavior is not worth exemplifying and sanctifying.  Even if we end up getting to the right place, the road we took to get there did too much damage.   To be compassionate and share God’s grace, we don’t have put people down or be misogynist racists.  We could do the right thing even if Jesus didn’t in this instance.  Mark tells us in no uncertain terms:  Jesus got it wrong.  Let us learn from his mistakes.

Richard Lowell Bryant

When It Tolls For You, Someone Else Should Be Listening

Three people on our isolated island community died over the long Labor Day weekend.  In a place like this, where everyone knows (or is related to) everyone else, that’s a tremendous amount of tragedy. What do you do when one person dies?  You do what you usually do; visits, funerals, songs, eulogies, food, memories, and lots of grief.  What happens when death meets death?  Americans aren’t used to this.  Now we’re getting into refugee country, natural disaster land, or war zones.  We need time to deal with our grief before we move on to dealing with the pain of someone else.  Middle-class Americans don’t deal well with multiple deaths.

I’m not a big fan of euphemisms, especially the ones we use for death.  No one just “passes away.”  Life is too precious a thing to only let go and cease to exist.  No, at the very least, we stop fighting.  Life is a struggle.  When the battle ends, we die.  Eventually, fatigue takes over.  Death, with its sting, find us when we least expect to be found.  When that happens, we die.  The medicine stops working, the chemo fails, the drugs go too far, and the alcohol is more than any of our organs can handle.  Death calls the last shot.  Whether alone in a nursing home or on a bathroom floor where your corpse will be found in a few hours, God seems absent.  Where in these moments of hopelessness and abandonment can we insert a few memorable lines about hope and resurrection?

Eventually, that’s going to fall to me.  I’ll be asked to give a degree of structure to what Christians believe, God’s role in the afterlife, and the resurrection itself.  I should do this as quickly as possible.  We’ll need to sing, pray, and do a few other things too.  No pressure, no rush.  Of course, by the time I stand up, the initial shock is almost gone.  The scene will have moved from the nursing room or bathroom to the local church sanctuary.  We will all look our best.  Gone are the signs, smells, sounds, and language of death.  Instead, at a funeral or memorial service, we see the indications of life draped in black.  We confuse life with death.  Death is the one word we are reluctant to speak at funerals.  How many times do we hear someone other than clergy use the word “dead” or “death in a memorial service?  It doesn’t happen.  Death is absent as we talk about the dead.  If we leave death out is it because we believe we make room for God?  Even in the presence of the most powerful language the church can muster to talk about the reality of the resurrection, we’re still afraid to acknowledge this reality:  we’re all going to die.

God becomes present in the opening words of the Service of Death and Resurrection.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read these words.  I know, within the next week, I’ll read them at least twice.  It gets harder to say them each time.  It is hard to utter them without weeping.  This is because I wonder if we have any idea what we’re saying. Has the meaning become entirely lost?

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.  (Death looks very alive.  Have you seen what alcohol and opiates are doing to communities?  Death destroys people.)

Rising, Christ restored our life.  (Resurrection is life, it is all around us, in every sunrise, sunset, and newborn.  None of us have a handle on resurrection because none of us can come to terms with death. Resurrection is, to paraphrase Michael Crichton, life finding away.)

Christ will come again in glory. (I don’t care how you come.  Just do it.)

Richard Lowell Bryant