10 Ideas for United Methodists to Remember Today

1. The tomb is still empty.
2. Jesus loves you.
3. God’s love is never up for a vote.
4. Everyone is welcome at Ocracoke UMC.
5. God created you as you are.
6. Jesus saves. We don’t save ourselves.
7. The church bureaucracy has a minimal impact on the ministry we do on a daily basis.
8. Christian love does no harm.
9. Prayer is always appropriate.
10. Invest in affirming God’s goodness.

Richard Lowell  Bryant

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We Are Looking Through A Veil (Exodus 34:29-35)

When Moses returned from his called special session of meeting with God on Mount Sinai, he wasn’t carrying the proposals his people expected. Whatever he believed right, accurate, and proper going up the mountain felt missing as he descended the uneven path. This wasn’t what he was expecting. Moses’ assumptions about God’s priorities and how God’s people lived into a relationship with God were not the same as when they’d left Egypt. The further from Pharaoh they fled, the possibility of living without God became unrealistic. They weren’t able to say “thank you” and “goodbye” to the being that saved their lives.

Despite Moses’ extensive legislative work in the Egyptian courts, he was unprepared for the transformative nature of his encounter with God. Containing amendments, proposals, and changes; neither Moses nor the Israelites had a good idea what the stone tablets held. Moses was so busy carrying the tablets, dragging them through the sand, and worrying about what might happen that he never bothered to read them. God gave the rules to Moses. Moses left. Staying behind to debate, chat, and query God wasn’t something Moses felt comfortable doing. He knew the closer one gets to God, the closer you are to dying. Moses, despite his adventurous lifestyle, wasn’t ready to die. Perhaps, when he was at the bottom of the mountain, after water and rest, he too would have the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.

Aaron made the first comment. “You know you’re glowing,” he said. “Glowing,” asked Moses? “Yes, your face is, well for lack of a better word, glowing.” Moses didn’t feel glowing, radiant, or any of the other words being bandied about. The camp’s lack of mirrors prevented Moses from immediately confirming this was a practical joke planned in his absence. Despite his hesitation, he’d have to take his brother’s word, he was glowing.

Skin care isn’t a big deal in the desert. The dry air and the sand do little to preserve natural beauty. Everyone looks rugged, Marlboro man leathery, whether you like it or not. Except for Moses, he came back from seeing God, and he didn’t only seem different, he was different.

“Maybe I am as radiant as they claim,” said Moses. “Perhaps if I look bright and shiny, the world around me will appear different.” If Moses had really changed externally perhaps there had been an inner transfiguration as well. Did he feel different? It would depend on those tablets. Moses wanted to read the two stone volumes God presented during his makeover session. He might need to make amendments or suggest changes to God. Of course, that would mean a second meeting with God. If he’d changed so much after one encounter, could he risk going up again?

There was little left to do but talk. Moses shared his experience of being around, near, and adjacent to God. Aaron and the others listened. To picture God speaking was more than some could handle. Yet when Moses described the reality of God’s presence, no one doubted what occurred. Moses was in a place where God was speaking.

It was decided. Moses would keep talking to the Lord. Their unique cliffhanger, one of divine intervention, near misses, and high drama was far from over. However, because Moses was in the presence of the Lord, he opted to make a change in his appearance. Instead of going in as before, on one on one, Moses chose to wear a veil. He’d put the cover on when the Lord was near and remove it when they’d finished talking.

Moses was already transformed and transfigured. God permanently changed his life. Now, it was up to realize the limits of humanities possible interactions with the divine. Moses thought that wearing the veil was a good idea. There is so much one can or should know. Despite all our efforts, reports, amendments, and stone tablets; God remains a mystery, something we see through a veil if we glimpse God at all. Maybe spending time in the presence of God’s will help us understand our way forward, out of the wilderness where we’re wandering. I know one thing for sure. If we do step into God’s presence, we will be changed.

Richard Lowell Bryant

We Know He Said It: The Truest and Hardest Words of Jesus (Luke 6:27-38)

Allow me to let the cat out of the bag:  when it comes to the middle of Luke 6, no one is willing to listen to Jesus.  In the course of 11 verses, he makes some of the most outrageous claims of his entire ministry.  This is where many people tune out, turn off, and start to question Jesus’ sanity.  What did Jesus say?  Does he call himself the Son of God or even God incarnate?  Does Jesus encourage people to walk on water or leap tall buildings in a single bound?  No, he does none of those things.  Instead, Jesus tells people to do something much harder than walking on water or surviving death on a cross.  Jesus tells us:  love your enemy.  You can hear the stragglers murmuring under their breath, “Who does this guy think he is?”

Of all the crazy commands, out of this world requests, and impossible ideas; Jesus not only suggests but implies to the level of a new commandment that we love our enemies.  One might ask, “Is he trying to lose followers?” It is questions like this, passages like ours that reaffirm one important supposition:  the gospel is relevant.  Despite centuries of human progress and technological advancement, the gospel message resonates because of our shared humanity.  Emotions, feelings, and ideas define our interactions with each other and the world around us.  Those feelings of wonder, when we look at the night sky and question our place in the universe, have not changed for millennia.  Luke 6 addresses the heart of the gospel, the core of Jesus’ message, and shows that its meaning is not bound by time and space.  This is a miracle we easily overlook or even ignore.  This is what it means when I say, “God is still speaking.”  God hasn’t stopped talking to us. The question is this:  do we want to listen?  Jesus speaks not about what it means to be an American, a Methodist, how you should vote, or what constitutes a church.  He begins and ends in the same place.  If you love your enemy and bless those who curse you, all of those other questions will work themselves out and maybe not in the way you expected.

We’re picking up from where we left off, in the place that it was most comfortable for us to stop listening.  That spot where Jesus’ requests became too much to handle.  And yet, before we look at Jesus’ most difficult and controversial teaching, perhaps the one thing in the entire New Testament that most scholars agree Jesus definitely said, let’s think about the kind of things we wish Jesus said.  What do we wish he’d told the disciples and then had passed down to us through two thousand years of written and oral tradition?

Perhaps you wish Jesus had said to the disciples, “Behold, when someone cuts thou off on the road, it is right and just to give them a sign of your displease using only a single digit of your offended hand.”  Or, “When someone disagrees with you politically, thou may write nasty things about their life, family, house, and beliefs on the social media platform of choice.”  Maybe you wish Jesus said, “Behold, anyone who is not in my immediate group is cast out, banished, and sent to an undisclosed fiery location.  Outsiders are not welcome.”

As we know, Jesus said nothing of the kind.  Those types of ideas, while easy to perform, are difficult to undo.  They lead nowhere and express nothing more than moments of frustration and smug superiority.  When Jesus says something, this time for real, you’ll notice a difference.  They are rarely easy to undertake.  The outcome of a Jesus idea is always better than the present which gave rise to the idea.  Lastly, there is no expiration date.  What Jesus says is true, despite time, culture, language and all the other things which generally divide the human community.

The first concept Jesus shares with his gathered disciples is to love your enemy.  In fact, this whole discussion is a variation on that underlying theme.  It’s the hardest thing Jesus asks his followers to do.  It may be the most challenging task posed in the entirety of the Bible.  Jesus invites us to love those who do not like us; in fact, he says to love those who are opposed to the very idea of “us.”  “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you,” he adds.  Who does Jesus think we are, Oprah, Gandhi?

I may love my enemy from a distance because I never encounter them daily.  That works if they live in North Korea and I live on Ocracoke.  I am able to mouth words of love.  In the end, I’m not required to do anything about the need to love my enemy.  I can say “love,” sound high-minded, and ultimately leave my enemy unloved (along with their nuclear weapons).  This is why Jesus takes it a step farther.  Loving our enemies isn’t solely something we think about or deem a good and noble idea. Instead, it is the action we take.  Loving our enemies is something we do.

Jesus is encouraging us to think about the enemies closer to home.  What’s happening on our doorstep?  Where are those strained relationships, weird glances, evil eyes and people who push us beyond the limits of Christian charity?  They’re not all on the evening news.  Some may be in the room or in the house around the corner. If we want to bring the love of Christ into the world, we start locally.  Local love moves us closer to Jesus’ vision for the world.  So how do we do this?  Jesus told us:

“Do good to those who hate you,” says Jesus.  Not be good said Jesus but “do” good.  “Doing” goodness and “being” goodness are two different things.  Doing goodness challenges evil, wrongs, injustice, and cynicism.  Overwhelm those who hate you with kindness.  Then he doubles back to where we were last week.  He talks about blessings.  I’m someone curses you or finds an opportunity to give you an inappropriate gesture:  bless them.  Give them an actual word of blessing, which is a gift from God that cannot be returned.    Blessings are ours to pass on.  A blessing from God is a powerful way to counteract a conscience dwelling on self-destruction and anger.  Lastly, Jesus says, “pray for those who abuse you.”  Usually, that’s the one we go to first because praying for our enemies seems much more comfortable than meeting their hostility with head on goodness.  Remember, prayer is not an easy way out.  Prayer is not a mechanical response to a world going to hell in a handbasket.   Prayer is dialogue, a conversation with God.  It’s not a wish list or to be a reflection of our own narcissistic desires.   The easiest thing to do is to pray for ourselves and the people we love.  That comes natural and it should.  What’s hard to for us is to slip something or someone into our prayers that don’t want to be there or could possibly care less that we’re praying for them.  We know we’re going against our prayer grain.  What do we do?  We pray those people who make our life hard and hate us because that’s what defines Christian disciples over and against some meditation group.  Christians take emotional, spiritual, and physical steps to counteract the malice seeking to determine the human condition.

Jesus takes the idea one step further.  He wants his disciples to know:  it’s easy to love people who look, talk, speak, eat, live, and resemble you.  The challenge comes in loving people who are not like you, different, or even hate you.  We know this!  However, choosing to live outside the cookie cutter norms defining our relationships is what makes Christianity unique.  Perhaps my favorite part of this text is this, “For even sinners love those who love them.”  The world can talk a good game about love, but that’s all it is, a game.  Jesus is saying, “There will come a time when people say nice things to your face in public and then go talk behind your back or post mean things about you on Instagram.”  Yes, Jesus knew, it’s easy to pretend to be nice and have the right intentions.  It’s harder to love consistently.  Why is love so hard?  Love means taking a risk; a risk for ourselves and our relationship with Christ.  To risk loving means becoming a disciple.  This is a process.  We are always learning to live, love, and risk. They are the mutually exclusive truths which frame our calling.

The world will know we are Christians by our love.  The Good News is this:  Jesus means it.  Do we?

Richard Lowell Bryant

If You’re Headed To General Conference: Appeals to Biblical Authority Are Meaningless

1. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and his sister.
2. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and his dead brother’s wife.
3. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and one woman and her servants.
4. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and his rape victim.
5. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and many women.
6. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and 700 women and 300 concubines.
7. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and one woman and her slaves.
8. The Bible endorses marriage between one soldier and his virgin prisoners.

All of the above are considered moral in the Bible. Does this mean United Methodists should condone these actions and cater them with pizza and cake in the fellowship hall? No, of course not.  However, same-sex marriage; that would be immoral and undermine the historic foundations of Christianity, Wesleyan theology, and western civilization.  I call bulls#$@$.

I can’t stand in a pulpit and support most of what the Bible deems as appropriate for marriage.  (I’ll tell you now, I will not officiate a ceremony for a man and his sister.  Nor will I marry a man and his rape victim.)  I won’t rationalize these texts, explain them away, or tell my congregation anything other than this: how the Bible talks about heterosexual marriage, as described above, is immoral, wrong, and disgusting.  The moment we cite the Bible as an authority on marriage it loses all influence on the institution of marriage.

How the United Methodist Church denies loving couples the right to marry is also immoral and wrong.  This denial has nothing to do with the Bible.  We’re using the Bible to dress up our dislike of other human beings.  That’s disgusting.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Hard Week To Call Yourself a United Methodist Christian

We are facing a momentous few days in United Methodism. In just over a week, delegates from all over the world will gather in St. Louis, Missouri to make a decision on the “Way Forward.” What does this mean? Methodists, like other mainline denominations such as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, are coming to terms with what it means to welcome LGBTQ persons into our congregations and ordained ministry. This is has been a very heated discussion in Methodism for many years. Now, the church is in a place to make a decision, one way or the other, or seek a compromise. Emotions are running high because both sides in this debate feel strongly about their positions. When this process is over, some people may decide they can no longer remain in the United Methodist Church. Others may look to create new versions of Methodism which reflect their theological priorities and understanding of scripture.

Like much in our country, what’s happening in the church feels disconcerting and confusing. Our church is polarized. The state of our religious discourse is tribal and toxic. It’s hard to find common ground amid the clichés and church jargon. Fear drives our responses to the world around us. Despite our differences, most people share one premise: We don’t want our church, country, or life to change into something that feels less comfortable and less holy. We like our routines and habits. We also prefer our interpretations of scripture.

In one moment, I find myself asking, “Why can’t we all get along?” In the next, I will seek every opportunity to proclaim God’s love for each of those God made. I don’t want to get along.  It is a confusing time. I have found that when the world feels this uncertain, it is an excellent time to reflect. How did we get here? What brought us to the moment? Why do we think this way about a specific issue? If we have a good idea about what brought us to this point, we might find a way forward.

My reflection begins with today, this time in history. After following the debates over the future of the United Methodist Church for many years, attending countless meetings and conferences, it’s hard to know what to think about United Methodism. I really don’t know. The anger on display, the self-righteous strutting of those seeking to gain power over others, and our love of the institutional church itself lead me to believe that our current incarnation has little to do with Christianity. In many ways, we’re like a spiritually active civic club with chapters across America. That’s not who we set out to be, but it’s who we’ve become.

We don’t feel Christian. Methodism, on a bad day, pulls me away from Christianity. I’m lured into the trap of caring more about what means to be a United Methodist with a pension and a home to live in than I am someone who is identified as a Christian. I don’t like to believe my Methodist identity trumps my Christianity.  It shouldn’t.  Methodism doesn’t have a monopoly on following Jesus.  At best, they should co-exist. These past few years, even that’s been a challenge.

Not that being a Christian is any more comfortable than clinging on to Methodism. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ make it next to impossible to call oneself a Christian. Sex scandals in every denomination, the co-opting of faithful people as pawns for partisan politics, and Christianity’s slowness to meet the needs of a hurting world make hard to say, “I’m a Christian.” I want to say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not like those people who do these hurtful things.” Then, despite my best intentions, I realize that anytime I say, “Those people” I’ve already tossed vital elements of my faith out the door. So yes, in 2019 it’s hard to identify as “Christian.” Given all the caveats placed on what one must believe (by believers on all sides of the spectrum), I don’t know if I match anyone else’s definition of being a Christian other than my own.

If I feel out of place and unable to identify with either Methodism or Christianity, what do I do? If the ideas and attitudes have become so polluted by politics, fear, and the vagaries of human emotion; where do I look?  If I don’t know what to do with the institution of United Methodism and Christianity looks nothing at all like I remember in Vacation Bible School; I can go find Jesus. Jesus isn’t an institution or idea. (We’ve tried to make him one.) At a point in history, there he stood. His words, recorded by his followers, are an undeniable testament to God’s priorities. Those words remain mine to read and then to share. They are a call to engage with God beyond our institutional priorities, tribal politics, and justifications. I may not know where I relate to United Methodism. At times, I am uncertain about labeling myself Christian in 2019. However, I can always return to Jesus.

Where do I go? I gather with the crowds who’ve come to hear him speak. These listeners and onlookers are my people. I can feel their energy and enthusiasm. By the seashore, people came from all directions. They could see, hear, and explore the impact of his words in ways we’ve lost. Jesus was unfiltered. There were no attempts to make him more understandable or applicable to the lives of the listeners. When Jesus speaks, life makes more sense. I get what he says. He moves me in ways Saint Augustine or John Wesley never has. Listen to his words:

“Blessed are the poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.” Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

Jesus sees the poor and hungry. We love to talk about the poor. We fly to visit the poor in other countries while neglecting the poor on our doorstep.  By acknowledging what is difficult for us to see, Jesus draws us closer to serving others.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” I can always return to Jesus. Jesus knows the broad sweep of human emotions. He accepts that there is a joy to be lived and sorrow to be embraced. I recognize there is room for me and my baggage in Jesus’ life.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors to did to the prophets.”

Jesus knows it’s hard to walk the line between religious expectations, tradition, and a world in need. If you come back home to Jesus and rely on his words, some people are going to hate what you say and do. Some people will hate what I’m writing. A strong response, according to Jesus, is a measure of success. Keeping our identity formed by our interactions with Jesus, despite the reactions we receive, is part of building the kingdom.

We can take Jesus’ words, package them as our own, and offer it to the world as Methodism or some other variety of Christianity. Or, we can mingle with the crowds and listen to Jesus.

Despite the structures, systems, and commissions which define our way of life as United Methodists (and Christians); it is still possible to associate ourselves with Jesus. Everything else is window dressing. This is us, who we are; the poor, hungry, troubled, joyful, and alive.

Richard Lowell Bryant

7 Pauline Lessons That Can Help Our Denominational Discourse

1. “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Simplify our worship, prayer, and community time.  Let’s make everyone feel welcome.  Be aware of anything that makes worship an insider experience.   Joy doesn’t need jargon.

2. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection.” (Romans 12:9-10)

Love is the guiding principle of the Christian tradition. Be reticent in labeling people or ideas as evil. Focus on love, goodness, and mutual affection. This is hard.  However, it’s all we have. Who needs another option when love is on the table?

3. “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8: 31)

“These things” are our lifeblood. We talk “these things” to death. Our “things” are important, and there is much to be determined. If we’re working in conjunction with God’s will, why are we so concerned with being right? In our search for allies, have we neglected the greatest ally of all? The determination of rightness rests with God.

4. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)

This moment, these decisions, and these arguments will all be history. Something better, in the eschatological sense, is inevitable. If we believe that the arc of history is bending toward reconciliation, we’re on the crest.  Let’s stay put.

5. “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry. We do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1)

Our ministries are defined by mercy. We exist in mercy and work by mercy. Are there plans or ideas that embrace mercy to a greater extent than another? In mercy, we see the light of eschatological hope. If we find mercy we find God’s will.

6. “Look at what is before your eyes. If you are confident that you belong to Christ, remind yourself of this, that just as you belong to Christ, so also do we.” (2 Corinthians 10:7)

We all belong to Christ. Look for Christ in those with whom you agree and disagree.

7. “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge so that you may be fulfilled with the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 4:18-19)

Humility is hard to embrace.  We should study humility every day. Paul’s prayer that we may be fulfilled (find enough) in God’s fullness is a reminder to embrace humility.  If we’ve made enough space for God’s fullness, there is less room for our egos.

Richard Lowell Bryant

I Love It When People Tell Me What I Need To Do

We are in the proverbial “calm” before the storm. As we come down to the wire, this is the period before any big Christian blow up (i.e., General Conference) where the self-righteous fence riders tell everyone else to go to our opposite corners to pray and fast. Of course, sanctimonious fence riders are the only ones with real virtue; they take no official positions, claim to be above the debate, and are always ready to tweet, “If we’d only pray, fast, and do God’s will” we could all continue living with our head in the sands of late 20th century Methodism.

As the Snickers commercials say, I’m not me when I’m hungry. I hate fasting. I do not believe that my preference for three sensible meals a day will someway impact General Conference or my opinions on a way forward. Fasting, despite my need to lose a few pounds, I reject out of hand. I need to feel well to be well. I’m sure God doesn’t want me dragging and undernourished, especially during a nasty flu season.

I’m pro-prayer. However, I don’t believe in weaponized prayer. The moment I start praying against something, my motives become unclear. Is this prayer about God or me? Rather than pray for a preferred outcome or the demise of my adversaries, I prefer the model of the Lord’s Prayer. There Jesus tells us to ask that God’s will be done on “Earth as it is in Heaven.” That’s a big ask, yet I’m comfortable with God’s will being the primary goal of any prayer. While others may have gone to their corners and heeded the calls of the mealy mouth moderates who want us to all get along; I’m not praying for my preferred plan or against another. I’m going to pray that whatever happens is better than our present reality. To me, an inclusive and loving church is the embodiment of God’s will.

Should I pray for an outcome that doesn’t divide the church and respects the humanity of all persons in the church? If the United Methodist Church is pursuing God’s will, then those outcomes will be foregone conclusions. The Christ who died for all did not leave rules on who may enter the church. The boundaries and limits of God’s presence have always been of our design.

Here’s why: If God is who I believe God to be; everyone is welcome into ministry, marriage, or United Methodism. If God is who I think God to be, God’s love will be a stronger presence than any of our attempts to interpret ancient doctrine in a modern context. If God is who I believe God to be, comfort and compassion will define our future instead of separation and segregation. If God is who I think God is, we will realize the Beatitudes are just the beginning. There is a whole world we can continue to bless.

Richard Lowell Bryant