Comfort, Comfort My People

Everybody’s mad.  After last week, who isn’t?  There were bombs, attempted shootings, and then a massacre in a synagogue.  It’s the definition of maddening.  As is always the case, we look for someone or something to blame.  It’s never enough to condemn the immediate perpetrator.  That’s too easy.  We have to go several levels beyond the sticker-covered van or the anti-Semitic online rants.  Who is really to blame?  Who made them do it?  Who put the idea into their head?

Here’s where the real finger pointing begins.  The fault finding takes on an infinite, house of mirrors like quality.  Nothing is solved.  Our divisions grow deeper.  Meanwhile, the dead are still dead and the living grieve as the blame goes round and round.  The dead and the grieving deserve better than the macabre, guilt themed reality show dominating the news.

I have no profound answers.  Everyone seems to know exactly what to do fix anti-Semitism, racism, and cultural division.  I don’t know anything.  I am all out of big, grandiose ideas.  I do, however, have a word for the dead and the grieving.  It is “comfort.”

I am reading the first and second verses of Isaiah 40.  Comfort is repeated twice.  If we require anything, I think we need comfort.  In Hebrew, it is an imperative verb. We are commanded to “comfort” and speak “tenderly.”  In my world, I don’t hear a great deal of comfort.  Even in the pretentious prescriptions of poets, politicians, and pious preachers, there’s little comfort.  I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s December 1942 letter to his colleagues in the resistance:  “What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”

God calls us to speak straightforward words of comfort.

Nachamu nachamu ami yomar eloheichem – comfort oh comfort my people says your God

In our anger, among our growing madness, where will we find God?  God is in the comfort we say, the comfort we offer, and the tenderness we convey.  God is in the beautiful things transcending life and death.  Simple, straightforward comfort; there we will find God.

Richard Lowell Bryant

*Prayer of Contrition

Thank you, Lord, for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I need to be reminded not to be a cynical misanthrope.  Amen.

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When We Speak of God

Who is God?  Where is God?  These are ancient and straightforward questions.  God gives a beautiful answer as to God’s identity and location in the 38 and 39th chapters of Job.  As God responds to Job’s questions, God tells us who God is by telling us what God has done.  God’s answers show an intricate involvement with creation.  God is indistinguishable from the command or the result of the order.  Is God the lightening or the power to bring rain?  Job 37 would argue that both are true.  God’s breath freezes water, says Job 37:10.  Can we distinguish God from the ice?  It’s a good question.  God exists between and within the function and form of the water, steam, and ice.  Filtering out God doesn’t seem a real possibility.

Throughout Job’s final chapters, we encounter a God invested in creation.  God is all around in ways we usually ignore, avoid, and take for granted.  God isn’t confined to a worship space, temple, or liturgy.  Instead, God is asking the reader (via Job) to think about this statement, “Surely God is great, and we do not know him.” (Job 36:26)  We are missing God’s prominent presence in our presence.  We don’t know what we’re missing.

In Acts 17, Paul tries to take some of the ferocity out of God’s argument.  In a conversation with Greek philosophers, Paul describes God as inextricable and at arm’s length.  At the moment you think you’re reaching for God, God’s already present.  “God is not far from each one of us.  ‘For in him we move and live and have our being.’” (Acts 17:27-28)  God, in Paul’s words, seems to be everywhere.

The Psalms also have an expansive idea of God’s presence.  In Psalm 139, the psalmist asks, “Is there anywhere I can go to leave God’s presence?”  The answer is a surprising no.

7Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Being beyond God is impossible.  Scripture points in this direction:  nothing is outside of God.  God does not hide in plain sight.  God is plain sight.

It’s easier for us to ignore and avoid the presence of God.  We do not enjoy speaking of or to God in parking lots, elevators, or at the post office.  God is never at the DMV.  On our good days, we plan selective meetings with God.  We treat God like a holiday destination.  “Have you heard, this weekend, God and I are going on a vacation!”

Here’s a spoiler alert for the atheist readers:  When Christians look for God, we head to the “obvious” locations. God can be found in churches, national forests, or lakes for fishing.   Because it’s simpler to be oblivious to God’s potentiality; for when we do encounter a transcendent moment, we are often bewildered and bemused.  God was in a church!  The trees looked like a cathedral!

However, in these brief God gatherings, we must manage all expectations.  God never calls the shots.  We set the agenda.  Did you know there are people who actually believe the Holy Spirit follows Robert’s Rules of Order?  Above all else, God never comes home with you from your vacation.  God stays in the wilderness, with the trees, fish, unicorns, and rainbows.  You can’t have God sitting at your kitchen table with you when you pay your water bill.  Or can you?  Should you?  Yes.  Invite Jesus into your heart and your messy living room.  Tear up the agenda.  Expect God to show up in some unexpected places.  Let God do God’s thing.

Maybe we need to realize that the everywhere God is also the God of the Mundane.  God of Car Repairs, New Toilet Seats, and Co-Pays; there is nowhere I can go that you are not holding me fast.  Amen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Who Wants To Sit At The Head Table? (Mark 10:35-45)

Does anyone still eat together?  We (I mean my family)try to.  Who do you eat with when you eat together as a family?  Remember, I’m talking about times other than Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.  It could be a Tuesday or a Thursday.  Who is there around the table?   Do you have a favorite place to sit when it comes to such dinner times?  Are you always across from somebody?  Maybe you’re to someone’s left?  Or do you get shoved to a table in the other room?  Did your place just become your place because that’s where you were told, a long time ago, to “sit there”?

From where you’re sitting things have always been a little different.  By the time the butter for the potatoes gets passed to you, it’s all but gone.   Salt and pepper are hard to come by.  You might as well launch an expedition to the kitchen rather than ask someone at the next table to pass them on over.  Yes, it’s on days like this that you’ve dreamed about moving on up to the head table, somewhere close to Mom and Dad, to a seat where the ketchup bottle is full, and everyone has a fork.  You want a seat at the big table, where manners might be required, and seconds are only “seconds” away.  What must one do take their place at this most important place of family eating?  Maybe you’d like to call “shotgun” when it comes to sitting around the table?

This is the kind of day some of the disciples were having.  They felt neglected, rejected, dejected, and just plain down!  It was just like the one I’ve described.  In at (or had any Jesus family gathering) they decided to ask Jesus for a promotion. Eventually, after a long time of working and practicing their speeches, they approached Jesus to say:  could we move up?  They wanted to sit at the big table but not at just any old big table.  Two of them, named James and John, were so tired of sitting at the kid’s table.  So they asked, whenever Jesus did whatever big thing he was going to do next they wanted a guarantee they would get the chance to sit at the big table.  We’ll gladly sit at the back with Matthew and Thomas for now.  But when the time comes and you do that big thing in Jerusalem, whatever it is, the one you keep talking about, can we sit right beside you?

Can you imagine how this sounded to Jesus?  I’ve tried to think, “What must Jesus have thought?”  I guess Jesus was pretty confused.  Did James and John not understand what Jesus was doing?   Did all they care about was getting a good seat?

Jesus tries to tell them.  “You don’t know what you’re asking!”  “Are you able to do all the things I’m asked to do?”  They said yes, which meant they still didn’t understand Jesus’ question.  Sitting at the big table comes with a lot of responsibility.  First, you buy the food, cook the food, clean up the meal, host the dinner, and provide for all who attend.  It’s a great deal of love and care.  The guests only see a small portion of the work, no matter the table.  Jesus is trying to say to them:  you can’t fully grasp, right now, all the things I’m asked to do or will be asked to do.  Because some of those things, Jesus is trying to say, will get much harder down the road.  I need you right here and at the table where you are.  Don’t worry about where you’re sitting.  Focus on the small things and the big things will work themselves out.

Do you know what happened next?  The one predictable thing you can always count on in these situations.  Someone got on their Instagram and did a story which said: “OMG can you believe what James and John did?  They had the nerve to go straight to Jesus and asked to be moved to the big table once Jesus brings glory about and totally restores the Kingdom of God.  Can you believe it?  They are such backstabbers.”  In case you need me to translate that means the other 10 disciples were angry.  Everybody wanted the head table.  What gave those two dunderheads the right to ask for special treatment in God’s kingdom where everyone was supposed to be treated fairly?

After this one simple question rooted in better access to ketchup and mashed potatoes, look at the chaos.  Jesus ministry appears to be on the verge of falling apart.  James and John asked if they could move up, Jesus handled it well, word leaked up on social media (complete with pictures of the asking), and now the remaining 10 disciples are angry with James and John.  What’s the solution?  Everyone has to go to the principal’s office.  Jesus has to clean this up before the whole thing collapses.

He starts to tell them a little story about how they should see the world around them.  He asks them to think about the people in their lives who are great and important?  Who are the ones with all the power and control? Who sits at the big tables?  So they sit there for a second and think.  Who do you think of?  Is it people on television?  Maybe you picture people with money?  Could it that star with a certain look?

What if it is none of those things?  Jesus tells them this most crucial point:  “But that’s not the way it is with you.”  What does that mean?  For Jesus’ disciples, it’s never about where you sit but are you sitting with someone who needs to be served.  Serve those people.  If you are a follower of Christ, greatness is not measured by location (sitting at the big table, where we live), whether people think we’re cool, and our choice of fashion, owning newest phones, but by how we serve other people.

Do you ever wonder why United Methodists put so much emphasis on helping people after storms or merely doing stuff in the community?  It’s because it’s the right thing to do and verses like this give us a great deal of encouragement.    Here’s how Jesus puts it, “For the Human One (that’s Jesus) didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and give his life to liberate many people.”  Like Jesus, we didn’t come to be served.  Everything we do is a form of serving others.  Worship is service.  That’s one reason we refer to worship as a “Worship Service.”  Sunday School is service.  Music serves and blesses.  Service is everywhere.

Service is at the heart of everything we do.  We, like James and John, sometimes want to be a little closer to the action.  It would be nice to know how all of this is going to pay off when Jesus accomplishes the big win.  To that question, Jesus tells us to have faith.  When we get a little ahead of ourselves we take a moment to remember; being a disciple is about serving and giving.   The best way to remember is to step into this place.  Stand outside and look at the steeple.  There’s something about being here, in the presence of God, which pushes us toward others and reminds of needs which are calling out to be met, service to be done at the table near the back of the room.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jesus Found Me Part II

Today, somebody out there is like me.  I am not lost, but I need to be found.  Don’t we all need to be located and reminded of our presence within the kingdom of God?  I don’t think this is a bad idea.

What does this mean?  It’s simple.  Jesus is embodied in the lives and experiences of my neighbors, friends, and community.  This is occurring in the present moment.  Part of my responsibility is to look for Jesus while Jesus searches for me.  I know, through the Holy Spirit, Christ lives and works through all of us.

Nonetheless, like my interactions on Tuesday, I wonder if there’s something I’m missing.  The nature of modern life makes each of us a moving target.  Our spiritual settings at dawn, when viewing sunrise are sometimes different when seeing the sunset.  That’s part of the human condition.  It is essential that at the end of the day, when we shut down we don’t shut off.  To reboot spiritually and morally is harder than you think.  Ignoring rest is not an option.  However, unplugging from a light in a world growing increasingly dark is merely foolish.

I do not want to miss the “doings and happenings” in this tiny sliver of God’s kingdom.  As the kingdom of God is measured, there’s nothing more significant than a 14-mile stretch that’s only two miles wide.  Could heaven be any bigger?  I know God is at work in ways I cannot see.  Mystery is God’s default operating system.   Perhaps God’s mysterious ways need an upgrade?  That’s a silly question on my part.  Maybe there’s more human interface than we want to admit.  I know this: I want to see more.  Perhaps I and others called Methodist can help.  There are the glaring needs and there are the subtle urgencies. Glaring needs receive publicity and people.  Subtle exigencies fall beneath the crack.  I want those to find me and be found by such demands.  Who knows what might happen? At the least, my prayer list will become a little longer.  That can’t hurt.

I’m ready to find and be found.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jesus Found Me

 

When God finds you, do you even know that you’ve been found?  Doesn’t it usually take us a moment to realize that God was in the area?  Is it, in fact, so subtle of a finding, you may miss that fact that Christ has crossed your path? I think so.  I believe God finds me multiple times a day and I rarely notice or only become aware after the fact.  “That was God,” I’ll say.  “Was that Jesus?” I’ll ask.  To which no one else is able to reply in the affirmative or negative.  I’m the only one who can answer.  I know before the words leave my mouth.  God was in the place, across the counter, in line, around the corner, by the car, and standing over there.  Jesus of the improbable and unlikely, as Jesus has always been, came and pitched a tent in my neighborhood.  I was too busy looking for the right kind of rice and a birthday card to notice.  Here’s the God’s honest truth:  even a guy who knows that Jesus isn’t confined to humanity’s stereotypes drops the ball.  If we’re looking for other stuff or just plain distracted, it’s easy to miss Jesus and the Jesus-like opportunities trying to find us.

I  do not think of myself as lost, in the directional or theological sense.  This is School Road, the St. Peter’s Square of Ocracoke Island.  I’m sitting in a United Methodist Church before a portrait of John Wesley.  Over there is the Coffee Shop and the Book Store. I know where I am.  Nonetheless, I am in need of being found.  Jesus is still striving to find me in the likely places which populate my day.  In the midst of my journey, Jesus comes to tell me to look, listen, and be found.

Our church’s exterminator came this morning.   His wife has been out of work for five months.   We prayed for her job search.  She was interviewed this morning and I could tell he was a little down.*  We also talked about the weather and bugs.  Guess what?  Jesus found me.  Why do I bother being surprised?

Jesus is the king of the drop in.  I didn’t have to do anything special. No candles were lit, nor music was sung.  My robe is still hanging on the back of the door.  Like countless times before, Jesus showed up, asked to be heard, and made to feel welcome.  These seem to be his priorities.  It’s kind of funny that Jesus found me at church.  He has a habit of seeing me on the ferry, at the grocery store, Wal-Mart, and places other than recognized houses of worship.

Jesus is trying to find you.  You don’t have to be lost to be found.  That’s one of the biggest myths in Christianity.  On the other hand, we’re all lost to one degree or another.  Lost is a relative term.  Does anyone really kick the sin habit?  The important thing is that Jesus is going to walk by, unannounced, and almost unnoticed (if you’re not careful).  Are you going to listen and make Jesus feel welcome?

Richard Lowell Bryant

*He called back later in the day.  She got the job.  He asked me, “Why do we get surprised when God answers our prayers?”  I don’t know.  I’m still working on that one myself.

 

Keeping Religion Out of Politics

It is important to speak,
Because in my Biblical bag of topics,
There are stories about Sarah and Abraham,
Not James Dobson and Franklin Graham.

When Joseph saved Egypt from famine,
Religion became Political,
When God sent Moses to Pharaoh,
Religion became Political,
When God told Moses to receive these laws,
Religion became Political,
When Job asked God why,
Religion became Political,
When Elijah picked a fight with Jezebel,
Religion became Political,
When Isaiah said “Here I Am”,
Religion became Political,
When King David murdered Uriah,
Religion became Political,
When Mary sang the Magnificat,
Religion became Political,
When Herod killed innocent children,
Religion became Political,
When Jesus said it would be hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom,
Religion became Political.
When Pilate interrogated Jesus,
Religion became Political.
When Jesus questioned God’s intentions in the Garden of Gethsemane,
Religion became Political.
When Constantine made the Church a part of the Government,
Religion became Political.
When Henry decided he wanted divorce after divorce,
Religion became Political.
When the Methodists became Methodism,
Religion became Political.

–Richard Bryant