The Last Fact

“I write because I am going to die.”

–Karl Ove Knausgård

We are going to die. Death, for all of its mystery and ambiguity, is the last undisputed fact in a world committed to the marketplace of ideas. We like to believe the most disgusting ideas are still up for debate, all in the name of free speech. Death needs no deliberation. It is the square peg which fits in every round hole. One moment we’re here, the next we’re gone. Death resists arguments over language, gender, violence, and income inequality. Why? In the end, both reactionaries and progressives are going to die and the world they left behind, damaged irreparably by climate change, is dying. Death claims all political agendas, facts, ideas, beliefs, and environments. Yet death belongs to no one, property of no ideology or theology. Death is a fact of life. In the life and death struggles of a polarized world, the “You’re dumb, I’m smart” political discourse, who wins when everyone is going to die? No one is victorious.

Why am I talking about death? In Luke 13, Jesus is focused on mortality. I’m taking his lead. He’s asking hard questions. Much like the questions many of us have wondered over the past week, “Why do innocent people suffer in senseless tragedies?” “Where is God amid violence?” Jesus is also posing questions that have no answers, answers we don’t like, refuse to hear, and don’t want to acknowledge.

What are we not acknowledging? Between our incredulity at Pilate’s brutality, towers collapsing in Siloam and the gun violence of our own time; what are we missing? Most people would put it this way: in one way or another, we are on the hook for our own death. Death is our fault and responsibility. We say this because it is Jesus’ response. “No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” (Luke 13:5)

Death is inevitable but not as I’ve described. For Jesus, our mortality depends on a change in our hearts and lives. This is what we ignore. Death is once again up for debate because our hearts and lives are subjective. If the way we live impacts the way we die then rules of the game have changed. Jesus alters the parameters of what defines human existence. We step back from the 1st-century headlines of these first few verses of Luke 13 with one message: how we think, talk, understand, approach, and relate to death is up for debate. As was the case when we started, all of death’s cards are on the table. Now, we’ve been dealt in. We have a hand. We’re in the game. Death can and (spoiler alert) will lose.

I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t Jesus say, “Change your hearts and lives; you will die just as they did.”? Yes, you read him right. Doesn’t that mean we need to shape up or risk eternal damnation in Hell? No, it doesn’t. A God who embodies and gives love does not send people to Hell. Keep reading: we all receive one more year. No one is going to Hell. Even the most barren fig trees find themselves blessed with a load of holy poop and another year to live. We keep getting “one more year.” The gardener loves me, this I know. When I die, it will be from natural causes, not because the gardener cut me down or burned me to the ground.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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What If We Were Told To Stay Away From Church in the Wake of A Terror Attack

The murder of innocent people at two separate mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand is a tragedy beyond description. To hear the country’s Prime Minister tell her Muslim citizens to stay away from their houses of worship; out of safety, caution and fear is a request I’d have never imagined hearing from a western head of government. What a comparable declaration would do in light of a similar attack in this country is hard to fathom. Because, to paraphrase Richard Gere addressing his drill sergeant Louis Gosset Jr in An Officer and a Gentleman, “We’ve got nowhere else to go.”When such tragedies occur we go to our churches, synagogues, and mosques. The quiet corners of these dimly lit buildings are our safe spaces. In them, we find space at our own pace to listen to God amidst the chaos. There is room for our anger, sorrow, and sadness. We have the opportunity to realize: we are not alone.

The idea of church, for my own safety, being taken away from our community is frightening. As much as being murdered in a house of worship terrifies me, I’m scared of not being able to go to church at those times when I most need to be in church. At the end of a lousy day, times when I’m sick and disconnected from those whom I love; that’s when I really need to be inside the church.

What we’ve seen in New Zealand today reminds us that violence, hatred, bigotry, and religious intolerance prevent the church (or any religious institution) from doing what it does best. Churches, mosques, and synagogues are here to care for their communities and embody the reality of God’s presence. When people filled with hatred choose to manifest their prejudices, so much so that they believe in taking human life, it’s hard to find a safe place for God in our modern world. Nowhere feels like the right place to pray, love, and exhibit God’s priorities for humanities. Where do we go? What do we do? Here a thought.

In one sense, I’m reminded that it’s always been dangerous to be publicly identified as a person of faith. The 1st-century church, those in the earliest generations following Jesus never knew safety. Their churches were “movable feasts.” From house to house and building to building, they worshiped when and where they were able. Their fellowship, their presence, made real in communion constituted the church. The church wasn’t about a building holding services or a property defined by a deed. If the believers found each other, they found the church and could see a glimpse of God at work in the world.

Yes, it would be frightening to be told not to visit our house of worship. We should pray for our Muslim sisters and brothers in New Zealand. This is a horrific and barbaric attack. Remember, even if we cannot get to a place; we know we can go to each other.

Richard Lowell Bryant

How To Survive Lent

1. Get off Methodist Twitter. You may want to take a break from Twitter altogether. However, Methodist Twitter is sometimes detrimental spiritual growth and the ability to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

2. Make your bed. You’ll sleep better at night if you come home to a bed that’s already made.

3. End every phone call with “God Bless You.” Who doesn’t want to be blessed?

4. Listen to early Taylor Swift (2006). It was a simpler time.

5. Delete a life draining application from your phone.

6. Go for a walk. You need it.

7. Turn off the television. Programming is crap.

8. Read Psalm 27 once a day. It’s a great work of art.

9. Don’t carry any extra baggage that you don’t intend to leave at the foot of the cross.

10. Remember: our citizenship is in heaven. If that means anything, it means something now.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Don’t Be Hurtful, Harmful Religious Jerks (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) Ash Wednesday

The scripture readings for Ash Wednesday are much like those we hear in Advent. Each year, as we approach Christmas, we hear of Mary, John the Baptist, and the story of Jesus’ birth. So it is tonight. We come to the beginning of Lent and once again find Psalm 51’s plea for mercy waiting to be read and heard. Joel’s prophetic calls for the Israelites to return to God stands close by. Then, lingering at the end, there is a word from Paul for the Corinthians. Paul says: “Be reconciled to each other. For God’s sake do not receive the grace of God in vain.” A theme for the day quickly emerges. Ash Wednesday is about seeking God’s mercy and being reconciled to live among each other as people of faith. Yes, the tradition of the church tells us today is a marker of our mortality. The ashes remind us that we are dust and to dust; we shall return. However, scripture lays a course like stones through a garden path. We go from one to the next, ever mindful of our mortality and the need to listen for the Good News all around us.

On the yearly journey through grace, mercy, and the need to be reconciled; where do we end up? Ash Wednesday places us among a group of Jesus’ disciples. They are listening to him explain the cost of discipleship. Sometimes we encounter passages whose relevance to our lives feels distant. The first century is not the 21st. Jesus and his disciples lived in a world where slavery was the norm, brutality defined daily life, and the average life expectancy was 30 years. Women died much sooner, due to complications in childbirth, in the early to mid-teens. Those whom Jesus taught didn’t need reminding of their mortality. Their lives were their admonitions.

When Jesus spoke, his stories were for his listeners and disciples. He didn’t know, nor did anyone in the crowd, that one day his words would be recorded in a book called the Bible. Jesus’ words do not arrive silently in our lives. Much of what Jesus says speaks to the universal reality of the human condition. When he addresses poverty, being a good neighbor, love, and prayer; these observations are not unique to the 1st century. In this way, our world has changed very little. We see his context and its relationship to our own. It becomes clear: the Good News and the Resurrection mean more than the disciples understood or we realize on any given Sunday morning.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Be careful you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention.” That’s a verse that anyone going to a United Methodist General or Annual Conference should re-read. Why does Jesus say this? We are quite accomplished at practicing our piety in front of others in an attempt to draw attention to ourselves. Our conditioning is such that we ask, “Who will believe us and see Jesus in our lives if we’re not public with our piety. We have to stand out against the creeping cultural war and secularism.”  Each year, at the beginning of Lent, we listen to these same verses.  Jesus isn’t ambiguous.  He says, “What we’ve come to believe about how to be religious isn’t true.”  Are we asked to read them again because we’ve yet to hear them? Do we not believe Jesus?

“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues.” He goes on. “Whenever you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and the street corners so people will see them.” Did you catch that? He said, “So people will see them.” Finally, he talks about fasting. “Don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces, so people know they are fasting.” In rapid-fire succession, Jesus outlines three ways the people around him go over the top with their public displays of piety. We don’t have synagogues, too few of us fast (me included), but we all get it what he’s saying. We pray and come to our version of the synagogue, and we’re all old enough to know what Jesus means. Jesus is talking about us, people we know, and how easy it is to become superficial about our faith.

Why are these behaviors a problem? Of all the many things Jesus could specifically address, why choose public displays of piety and religion?

Firstly, we are the religion that the world encounters. People don’t see buildings. Unless you’re offended by some styles of architecture; buildings don’t alienate people from God. Instead, they talk to other people. You may have heard the cliché, “You’re the only Bible someone may ever read.” It’s a cliché because it’s true.

Secondly, we may be the only encounter some people ever have with Christianity, Jesus, or a Methodist. We don’t want to turn people off with outlandish or exclusionary acts of faith. The behaviors that Jesus describes do more harm than good. Excessive public displays of piety, as Jesus outlines, hurt people and turn them away from the church. As we read Matthew 6, I think about the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Three days of public piety, prayer, and deliberation led to pain and harm we are only beginning to realize. To the world, Methodism is just another church that hates gay people while claiming to love everyone. We know that’s not true. To those watching from the outside, we look the hypocrites Jesus is urging us not to become. Ask yourselves, “Are our public gestures and words consistent with the work of Jesus in the New Testament?” If not, then we need to rethink, retool, pray Psalm 51, and try again. If not, we need Lent more than ever.

Richard Lowell Bryant

I’m Giving Up Methodism for Lent (My Two Cents Worth)

Richard Bryant Offers His Two Cents Worth

The internet is awash with responses to the decisions taken by the Special General Conference. Everyone wants to put in their two cents worth. Whether one is aggrieved or vindicated, the ability to rehash debates, minimize the impacts, exaggerate the effect, are part and parcel of life in post-Saint Louis United Methodism. Above all else, we must tell each other how we feel. Whether on a church sign or through an angry tweet, the world must know on which side we stand.  We are implored to exclaim to those who care and those who could care less what must come next.

I can’t do it anymore.  What can one say, really?  What happened in Saint Louis was a mockery of a sham of a farce.  I get it.  I’m tired of being churchsplained by people who said little during the past three years to suddenly emerge from the ecclesial woodwork and diagnose the apparent problem: post-Saint Louis United Methodism lost its unity. Thank you for the newsflash.

You may have forgotten, amid our well-covered self-immolation, Methodism (like most of Christianity) is about to enter the Season of Lent. The Christian year goes on, despite our protestations and attempts to define our faith against those with whom we disagree. Lent, like a distant and unrecognizable sound, calls us to listen to our morality. We are dust, and to dust, we shall return. Lent begins with the prescient reminder: all of our decisions, councils, votes, and ideas will one day be dust. Our victories and defeats are dust. However, when I look around at the church we’re trying to save, it’s as if we believe we are going to live forever. We have forgotten the first lesson of Lent. No one gets out alive.

With that in mind, what is the second lesson of Lent? In the spirit of seasonal self-denial, I have chosen to give up being my own God. In the spirit of collegiality, I offer this idea to pastors, laity, and the entire denomination. We must give up being our own Gods. From the narcissism which frames our self-worship in the guise of healthy living and Sabbath keeping to the deification of anything Wesleyan or traditional and the idolatry of worshiping the Bible (versus the God contained therein), it’s time to stop being our own God. Methodism, as clearly seen in Saint Louis, worships the idea of being Methodist. God is what helps us to be better United Methodists, or so it would seem from watching the conference. I’m confident we’ve placed a greater emphasis on our Methodism rather than our God-following. Perhaps, this Lent is the year we give up Methodism and stop letting our tradition get in the way of following Jesus.

Richard Lowell Bryant

We Are Praying for Peace in India and Pakistan

It is a tense time on the subcontinent. Kashmir, much like Northern Ireland, has been a hard place to live for those in both sides of a contested border. You know the scourge of ethnic violence, sectarian tensions, and terrorism. However, I need to tell you to keep calm and carry on without using nuclear weapons. You’ve got to stay calm. Talk to each other, listen to one another, and remember the words of the Mahatma, “Nobody wins in a nuclear war.” Gandhi didn’t say that exactly but you know it’s the kind of idea with which he’d agree. His widely attributed remark that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” works well here. Retributive violence leads to debilitating consequences for the whole of humanity. When nationalism and faith become tools of destruction, harm, and oppression no one is better off.

Step back from the danger zone and take a deep breath. We are praying for you. Our little band of Christ followers in a place called Ocracoke believes in peace. We love the neighbors we have never seen in both India and Pakistan. Our lives are inextricably linked by everyday human experiences. We want the best for our children and families. Safe homes, schools, and communities are essential to people in Kashmir, Karachi, New Delhi, and Ocracoke. So this weekend in our church, we pray for peace, vision, and the ability to love when love seems distant.

As the great poet Rumi once said, “Let us raise our words, not our voice.” We raise you in prayer.

Blessings in the name of the God of Abraham,

Be with those in the middle,
Sandwiched between calls for violence and the desire for revenge,
Comfort those who are grieving,
May they know your presence,
Be with those in power,
Equip them with compassion and restraint,
May the silence be a time for listening,
May speaking be for understanding,
And may God’s will be done.
Amen

Richard Bryant

How Did Peter Know What Elijah and Moses Looked Like?

 

You probably know the song, “Surely the Presence of the Lord.” It’s on page 328 in the hymnal. It’s not really a hymn in the traditional sense of the word. No, “Surely the Presence of the Lord” is a single verse, a chorus which asks to be aware of God’s presence in this place and among God’s people. Here’s how it goes:

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings.
I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

Did you see those three verbs in the second, third, and fourth lines? Feel, hear, and see are the words I want you to notice. God’s presence is something felt, heard, and seen. All of our senses are engaged when we enter into God’s presence. These emotions and responses are not like ones you feel when you’re in love, or before eating your favorite dinner and buying that new shiny thing. Those reactions are about us and our enjoyment alone. When we step into God’s presence, what we see, hear, and feel draws us into a deeper relationship with God and the whole community. Being in the presence of God is a realization that knowing God means living in fellowship with others. Why is this so important? Here’s why: we see God’s presence in the lives (or as the song says, “In the faces”) of other people. We cannot be in the presence of God without knowing, listening, seeing, sharing with each other.

This is not typically how we picture being in the presence of God. Our ideas about stumbling through the gates of heaven and ending up in God’s office have been shaped by the Bible, movies, and centuries of religious tradition. You know this story! God, whether Greek, Roman, Egyptian or Incan was thought to be distant beings that lived in faraway and unreachable places. God was always in the plural. No self-respecting civilization had only one God. Real people in real life didn’t encounter God or Gods. One met the Gods when you died. Death was the “thing” which made it possible to reach the presence of the divine.

Sometimes the Gods descended their holy mountains or appeared in a different form to stroll around town. Gods liked to check up on their people and see if all the right sacrifices were being made in the temple. When they did this, it usually happened in disguise. The Gods weren’t recognizable to the people. Not that there were “Greek God” trading cards so that people would know how to spot Zeus when they saw him. Ancient stories tell us the Gods would change their likeness, sometimes assuming the form of an animal. They didn’t want to be recognized. There was a permanent barrier between the living and the divine. It wasn’t designed to be crossed by humanity. In this worldview, people existed to please the Gods. Humans were playthings. The Gods would drop in and out, stir up a mess, date a mortal, and then head off to their sacred mountain. If you had questions about God, one could make a pilgrimage to a temple where a religious would sacrifice a bird and read the entrails. That’s a close as most people thought they would ever get to God.

Christianity is different. Here’s what our tradition says: God isn’t an adversary to humanity, God is not a trickster who’s only interested in humanity’s problems for divine pleasure, and it’s possible to be in the presence of God while you’re alive. Some people would say that’s crazy. When people have thousands of years invested in the rituals and rites of worshiping God from a distance, the idea of an up close and personal God is overwhelming. Or, if your specific faith heritage tells of a man (Moses) going up a mountain to see God and then bringing God’s presence back to the people; you might want to hear more about the time Jesus, Peter, James, and John went camping.

What do you call a trip where a group of guys take a break out of the usual routines and head up to the mountains for a night or two? To me, that’s a camping trip. That’s not how the New Testament describes the event we call the “Transfiguration.” That being said, I know a camping trip when I see one. Jesus and his three closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) head to a mountain to pray. OK, so it’s a prayer camping trip. Even better, work colleagues who share common religious values are going on a retreat. It gets better by the verse.

This story goes from zero to 60 in one verse. No sooner than the disciples arrive, it gets a little strange. Remember, these guys have seen miracles. They’re not new to Jesus asking them to live beyond the ordinary. However, this was well beyond the expected. Jesus starts to glow. He’s radiant like Lady Gaga on Oscar night. Moses and Elijah, two prophets who’ve been long dead (and I’m not sure how they would recognize in the first place, remember no pictures, trading cards for spiritual superheroes, or Google), appear out of nowhere and begin talking to Jesus.

Why would Moses and Elijah have a cosmic Powwow with Jesus? Jesus is a pretty talented guy. When he prays and needs to consult, heaven and earth are moved to get it done. They want to talk about the departure. No one wants to talk about the departure. Peter, James, and John have no idea about the departure or what that means for their lives. Yet there it is, similar to Ash Wednesday; Jesus, Elijah, and Moses set the stage for the events to come. They must be ready if what has already happened in Galilee (Jesus’ teaching and preaching) will go beyond what is going to occur in Jerusalem, at the Passover. Even Jesus plans ahead.

The three disciples, while they might not have understood everything, grasped the importance of the moment. If they were camping and spending the night outside, didn’t Elijah and Moses need shelters? The text tells us, so politely, that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. He was overwhelmed and distracted. Dead guys aren’t too much for creature comforts.

That’s when the cloud arrives. In a movie, you’d call this a mysterious mist, but that’s not it at all. The cloud is the presence of God. Surely the presence of God is in this place! God’s voice comes out of the cloud. God reiterates the same message from Jesus’ baptism. “This is my son, my chosen one, Listen to him.” Then it was over. The Cloud, Elijah, and Moses were all gone. Jesus and the three disciples were the last men standing. What happened?

God’s presence and purposes are beyond our understanding and comprehension. We may not always understand God, but we know God’s real. We can come close to God; we can hear God, we can feel God, and we can see God’s presence. Spending time in the presence of God’s will help us understand our way forward, out of the wildernesses where we’re wandering. I know one thing for sure. If we do step into God’s presence, we will be changed.

Transfiguration is more than being washed in supernatural light and heavenly laundry detergent. For us, it’s about the changes we need to make in our lives as we prepare for the Lenten Journey. The world is a harsh, polarized, and demanding place. The season of Lent and the days to follow are a way to transfigure what we’ve been doing into something healthier and holier. Why? Because we are preparing to make an audacious, world-changing, and life-altering announcement: The tomb is still empty.

Richard Lowell Bryant