5 Stupid Things I’ve Heard In Church (AKA Things That Still Don’t Make Sense To Me)

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The Lamb’s Book of Life – That’s got to be one big book. Indeed, we must be talking about a library of books; I mean volumes upon volumes of books by this stage in human history. Has heaven switched over to the Lamb’s terabyte hard drives? One would think so, given the number of people who died in the 20th century alone. It’s a strange metaphor. If there’s only one book, books can only be so large to be practical for reference uses. I write this as an owner of the two-volume edition of the Oxford English dictionary. It is unwieldy and requires a magnifying glass to read the entries. Are we sending the message that eternity (“Heaven”) is limited to those whose names can be written in something the size of a single book? Why would God use books anyway? Doesn’t this strike anyone else as odd and outdated? God is omniscient and omnipotent, or so we say; I wouldn’t think God would need as much as a post-it note. We’re dealing with God, after all. Sometimes I don’t think we realize how strange we sound-especially to the unchurched and people with no religious background.

It’s all in God’s plan – I’ll never believe that random acts of suffering, violence, illness, and death are somehow part of God’s master plan for the universe. So, do not say these words. If we repeat this distorted version of a vengeful God who plays bets with our lives like a poker player, God comes off as a real jerk. It would be easy for people to think God is testing them with each sickness, tragedy, and catastrophe that struck their lives. But listen: God loves you unconditionally. Sometimes life sucks.

That’s my seat – (That’s my pew.) There are no assigned seats in the kingdom of heaven. I hope Rosa Parks is in charge of seating in Heaven. As such, if a visitor or someone new happens to find their way to where you usually sit on Sunday mornings, be gracious and keep your mouth shut. Welcome the visitor, introduce yourself, and sit somewhere else. Be cool. Hospitality is the greatest gift you have to give.

I can’t sing – No one else can either, man.  None of us are winning American Idol. That’s not the point. Talent is not the issue. Joy and gusto are what matters.  No one cares that you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Sing like your life depends on it. Watch an English football match one weekend. Sing as they sing. We should sing like English soccer fans in church, off-key and loud.

I’m going to withhold my tithe – To do what? Go to the Olive Garden? Do you want the church to be unable to pay the light, water, and power bills? Or are you opposed to the pastor having health insurance? How do you want to hurt “your” church most by hurting its ability to function, your pastor’s health, or the congregation’s ability to serve others in mission? Each time you say, “I want to withhold my tithe,” also say, “I want to hurt people.” You need to be clear as to what you’re doing. They are one and the same.

–Richard Bryant

Is It Time To Be Holy? Losing the Distinction Between The Personal and Social

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Quoting Leviticus seems to be all the rage these days, so I thought I’d give it a go. Leviticus 19:1-2 says something like the following, “The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’” Now at the risk of sounding like a cross between a Methodist Andy Rooney and Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with our continued forced dichotomy between personal and social holiness?” Isn’t it time we stopped beating this dead horse? Is this not one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in, because we’ve lived in this under this bipolar, schizophrenic definition of holiness within the Wesleyan tradition for so long such that the two can no longer co-exist in the same body, the body of Christ, in the psyches of the people called Methodist. The quest to be holy in two different ways has literally (and figuratively) driven us insane and pushed us into some dissociative personality disorder-clinically speaking. As religious groups go, United Methodists are not the best example of a denomination with good mental health. Or, as my grandmother, who never went past the eighth grade, would have said, “we have lost our ever-loving minds.”

All through the Torah, especially Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we hear this same injunction repeated: you be holy because I (God) am holy. God doesn’t make the distinctions between social and personal holiness. A human being created these artificial divisions. Some of us feel more comfortable emphasizing one form of holiness over another. I think it’s clear from reading the text that God is a God of the community. We discover our personal and individual identities within the community and the society created by the larger community. Our communities, tribes, and clans tell us who we are. That’s what the Old Testament says. I am a United Methodist by accident of birth and geography and no other reason alone. My community and family determined my religious affiliation. Had I been born in Pakistan in March of 1974, I would be a Muslim. Society forms our beliefs long before we develop a sense of individual identity. Creating a sense of social holiness is the first step toward teaching and achieving personal holiness. We are defined and shaped by our cultures.

Ultimately, I am encouraged that the God of Israel shows no distinctions between personal and social holiness. God sets a goal and enables us to follow along, knowing we will fail at our tasks. We will never be as holy as God. It is impossible. We can never match God’s holiness. Does this mean we should stop trying? No. I think it means we should go about our quest for holiness with greater humility, kindness, and justice, realizing we will never figure it out. Just when we think we’ve got holiness locked down, we’re probably in as unholy a state as we’ve ever been. It’s time to hop off our high holy horses, find someone else, and tell them how sorry we are for getting our unholy cart before the Lord’s holy horse.

–Richard Bryant

How Do You Talk About God After Auschwitz?

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How do we talk about God after Auschwitz? How is it possible to discuss God’s goodness after witnessing the brutality of the Holocaust? It’s a question our Jewish sisters and brothers ask more than Christians ever have. In the light of six million people systematically executed because of their religious identity; how is it possible to talk about God? It’s the ultimate modern expression of the theodicy question first posed by the writer of the Book of Job. Why do good people suffer?

If you’ve visited a concentration camp, toured the gas chambers, seen the mass graves, and stood where victims were hung and shot, you realize “How do you talk about God after Auschwitz?” isn’t a theoretical question. You’re not engaged in an ivory tower debate between academics, theologians, and philosophers, on something that may never happen without real-world implications. Standing under the gate which reads, “Work Will Make You Free,” on ground permanently contaminated by the evil that occurred in the buildings only feet before you, you realize this is a question that demands an answer, not just on International Holocaust Remembrance Day but every day of our lives.

I’ll ask again, “How do we talk about God after Auschwitz (or any camp)?” I’m not sure there is an answer. Concentration camps have the power to rob visitors of words. Over seventy years later, the silent bricks, mortar, windows, and sidewalks are fully functioning thieves, and standing there, looking at the showers where the cyanide-based Zyklon B was used to kill thousands of unsuspecting men, women, and children, I was robbed of my ability to talk about God. I looked for words and found none. It was all I could do to breathe. Have you ever felt punched in the stomach by gazing out at a sprawling complex brick buildings and manicured grounds? That’s Auschwitz. It’s almost like the opposite of the Holy Spirit descending at Baptism. It’s as if, with each step, you can feel God finding it harder and harder to breathe. God wasn’t in this place. These were rooms devoid of all goodness, mercy, and hope. In these rooms and the ovens beyond, God was dead. How do you talk about God after Auschwitz? Maybe you don’t. Perhaps, we say nothing at all. There’s nothing to say.

Do we default to discussing Jesus and his death on the cross? Do we try to Christianize and co-opt the Holocaust to explain the tremendous suffering of the Jewish people even though the Holocaust’s roots are in a perverted form of Christian theology? No. We remain silent.

I’m not sure it’s possible to talk about God using any of our traditional religious language following the horrors of the Holocaust. We do an injustice to the survivors. We show how little we understand of the God we claim to worship. We cheapen ourselves and show our ignorance of history. Even the hint that the SS was somehow part of God’s will (or God’s larger plan) is grotesque, offensive, and evil.

Our concept of God, whether we choose to admit it or not, was forever altered by the concentration camps. Our struggle to comprehend the brutality in the Ukraine is a fight between the God we knew before Auschwitz (the God with whom we are more comfortable and can easily rely on and believe) and the absent God, still fully on display in places like Dachau, the Donbas and Mariupol.

There are no religious words to make this wrong right. The last chapters of Job are out of time and place. Some of Elie Wiesel’s works provide a degree of closure and allow his readers to glimpse the experience of living in such conditions. I’ve stood on the spot where Bonhoeffer died. His ideas on religionless Christianity are good words but even they fall short. Other than that, there is nothing to say but “never again.” We must say those two words to each other over and over again. I pray God is listening.

–Richard Bryant

The Beatitudes: God’s Words That Aren’t Intended for Your Scriptural AR-15 (Matthew 5:1-12)

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What’s your favorite Bible story? If you’ve been to Sunday school and heard as many as I have, can you pick just one? I like them all. You might even say I love them all. Here are just a few of my favorites right off the top of my head:

  • Moses and his ongoing frustrations as he leads the Israelites through the wilderness
  • Jonah and whale
  • David and Goliath
  • The conversation between Abraham and Isaac on the way up the mountain
  • Noah, “You want me to build what?”

I could go on and on. Those are just a few of the big ones. But my favorite story in the Bible, in all of these 66 books, is found in the first 12 verses of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Here’s how it goes. Jesus, he’s the main character, like a new Moses. He goes up to a mountain to deliver a sermon, a new oral version of the ten commandments. Now, please pay attention; here is where it gets exciting. At the point in the story where he finds a spot to stand where the acoustics are just right, and most of the people gathered around can hear him, he starts to talk. Jesus talks. It’s not the fact that he speaks that makes this story exciting and vital. It’s what he says that is so meaningful. He reinvents ethics, human society, values, and religion, and he does it in 12 verses. What Johnny Appleseed did for apple trees in one song, Jesus did for civilization in 12 verses. Jesus makes it seem so simple, easy to follow, and implement in your life. Do these things, you’ll hear him say, and the world will change.

You realize what he’s asked you to do only after hearing them. At the same time, they sound deceptively simple on the surface (like a 1st century Hallmark Card) but they may be the most demanding tasks ever asked of any person. These “be” statements, as easy as they appear, ask the listener to sacrifice themselves for others in ways they’re not used to doing. They rearrange the order of the universe. Sure, God stays on top, others go first, and our wants, needs, and desires go to the bottom. At first glance, it does look easy. We ask God for the simple paint-by-numbers version of Christianity. Then what happens? 

Jesus goes up the hill and lays it out. Step 1, step 2, step 3, and so on. What do we do? We say, hold on! We asked for easy, not a spiritual commitment to the welfare of others, my community, peace, neighbors, and love. I wanted something that fit my needs, more in line with the Old Testament. 

Jesus, telling his story from the acoustically precise perch atop the mount, says, “my friends, is the new, new thing.” God is expanding God’s horizons. The law is the law but are neighbors need neighbors. Our neighbors need love. Our wars need to end. Our hungry need food—our broken need healing. Our grief needs comforting. Who is ready to come with me and tell this story? People aren’t going to like it, but this has to and must be done. They’d rather talk about the old stuff. But this, this right here, Jesus tells them, is what God is all about.

Don’t the Beatitudes feel like common sense? I mean, really? These 12 verses have always appeared to me to be the most self-evident truths in the Bible. Perhaps that’s why they bear repeating so often. The things that ought to be common sense and self-evident, easy to do, and no-brainers are those that we so easily screw up day after day, month after month, and year after year. On the surface, we should have no problem accepting each of these statements at face value. No Christian in this or any church should argue with Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes or the implications of putting them into practice in your life. They are the central components of Jesus’ teachings, yet when push comes to shove, most people would easily give them lip service yet find themselves unable to realize the full impact of what they agree to when they sign on to, “Blessed are the peacemakers” or “Blessed are the merciful.” We can all agree that peace and mercy are fine qualities to exemplify and promote. But what does it mean to be a peacemaker? What does it mean to make peace and lead a peaceful life? What does it mean to show mercy? When you take the Beatitudes to the next logical step, the “I’m going to live them out” phase, they become the most challenging commitment a Christian can make.

First, remember none of the Beatitudes are quid pro quo. Let’s go back to mercy for a moment. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” If you are merciful to others, you will receive mercy. If you do this, you get something in return. We don’t do good things because we want good things in return. Jesus is trying to teach that you do the right things in life because it’s essential to do the right things regardless of the outcomes. In the end, doing the right thing is a blessing in and of itself. The mercy we show comes back to us as mercy. This peace we make comes back to us as peace. We’re not hoping for a return. We’re doing the right thing, period.

To whom do we show mercy? Jesus wants us to show mercy to everyone, friend and foe alike. Our mercy isn’t something we disburse in drips and drabs. It’s easy to show mercy to those we love and are related to and those who look like us, worship, talk, and believe like us. The Beatitudes (and Jesus) challenge us to comfort, feed, bring peace, and show mercy to those who we don’t love, dislike, aren’t related to, look nothing like us, don’t worship like us (or at all), don’t talk like us, or believe like us. If you “Beatitude” like the first group, it’s easy; it’s a typical Sunday morning. Christianity is no longer a challenge; we never grow in our faith. We are static, and we will die as a congregation and denomination. That’s what will kill us, not who we ordain or marry. Ultimately, it will be that we stopped taking the Beatitudes seriously, living them out, and regarding them as our mission statement as a congregation. If we lose these, we’ve lost everything.

I wish the people who felt so strongly about using the term “God’s Word” as a weapon and carried Deuteronomy and Leviticus locked and loaded in the chamber of their scriptural AR-15’s, ready to fire, would put down their guns. We have an epidemic of gun violence in this country. We also have an epidemic of weaponized Biblical violence, where we use the words of the Bible like high capacity rounds to kill, maim, and wound those with whom we think God disapproves. The spiritual corpses litter congregations from one side of this country to another. We can’t pick up the bodies fast enough before another verbal massacre occurs. As with the shootings in our streets, we’ve got to stop using God’s word’s, modified for lethality, so that more people’s faith are not left to bleed out on the altar of “scriptural authority.”

The Beatitudes also God’s words, words about mercy, peace, and righteousness. They weren’t meant to be fired at anyone. Put the gun down. Declare a truce. Be a peacemaker. Be a child of God.

–Richard Bryant

MANIFESTO: The Moderately Mad Preacher Liberation Front (with apologizes and gratitude to Wendell Berry)

I came to know God through people,
(How else does one come to know God?
We are not born with a knowledge of the divine.)

Methodist people,
taught me their vision of God,
a God of America, Jesus, and Jesse Helms,
but under the steeple,
where they confirmed,
and a Bible they gave,
I started to read
and my stomach churned.
This was not a God
In whom I
naturally believed.
But this was in the past
And was I told I must,
Keep calm and carry on,
context was everything.

After all,
in whom did I trust?
In Jesus Christ and his righteousness.
We weren’t literalists,
or fundamentalist nuts
.
But it was there,
in the text.
It bothered,
I was scared.
I didn’t know how to answer
For a God who didn’t care
about
Amalekites
chattel slavery
or human rights.
Israel’s God, the Canaanite Sky God,
El, Elohim, El-Shaddai,
The God of Horeb, Sinai
Smoke, Thunder,
Promises and Death,
Restoration and Renewal
,
Silence and questions,
Religion taken for granted,
Accepted at the value
Of God’s unseen face.


Twenty-plus years later,
I can’t keep up the pace.
I’m on running fumes, Maverick.
My answers are contrived,
sometimes nonexistent,
often delayed and hesitant.
My family doesn’t want to go to church,
with those think themselves exempt
who say they love their neighbors but still show contempt.

Who are my neighbors,
that came to know God,
who read single verses,
and became irate?
Who told them this was okay?
Sinners in the hands of angry teachers,
and they came to know,
the same God?
No!
The God I thought I knew?
None of us do.
We are all making it up
as we go along.

Tell no one, or we’re all through.

The Levitical priests in the 8th century BCE
who carved words
for illiterate shepherds who to read
They, too, were wrong:
To ban loving relationships between people of same gender,
To tell me that I can’t order my shrimp extremely tender,
To prevent me from ordering a sweater with a blend of polyester.
But the next chapter tells me to love my neighbor.
The Book of Leviticus says all four,
Why do we pick one to enforce and another to ignore?
Is it just to be mean?
Despite humanity’s many valedictions,
United Methodists have never learned to live
among the Bible’s most common contradictions.
That reality has killed us.
Now I am alone
standing in the pulpit,
staring at the pew,
where my wife and daughters once sat,
wondering how long it will be,
before I, too, will leave?


Will I have a home in a broken UMC?
Will it be worth it to remain?
I know what they say,
just when I’m almost out of pain,
someone offers to top me up.
And here we are again.
Despite any vote,
that goes for or against, up or down, left or right
we’ll all have to pay.
When will I stop preaching sermons that I hope will not offend,
or be misconstrued
but encourage us to face scriptural contradictions with faith, not fear,
and examine the injustices printed in our “perfect” Book,
“condoned” by our God, hiding within?
Will I ever stop feeling like a fraud,
giving weekly lip service to the God
so many of my sisters and brothers came to know and will not shake?
No one wants to hear the other side of the story.
I am fighting a losing battle.
I know when I’m licked.
I’m pretty well close to done.
I’ll call a one-man, one-vote, disaffiliation conference.
Then we’ll see.
Tick-tock, tick-tock.

–Richard Bryant

E-Flat Major (A Poem)

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No matter what time of day
I still hear the notes
I cannot play
without the pain
Of the ruler
coming down
upon my knuckles,
the Thumping sound
sharp aches
hurting pride
no matter how
hard I try
I still hold
E flat major
in my soul.
My fingers move
as far as they can,
and I hear the chord
in my hands.

–Richard Bryant

You Don’t Use A Net To Fish For People (That’s Called Human Trafficking or Slavery, Not Evangelism) (Matthew 4:12-23)

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I never get tired of talking about the Andy Griffith Show. It was one of the most important shows in the history of American television. Think about all the issues Andy addressed in Mayberry in the early 1960s.  Andy dealt with alcoholism, addiction, greed, fair housing, poverty, women’s rights, single parenting, fair play, and how to handle small-town gossip. He didn’t judge people no matter how uncultured or far back up in the woods they came from.  And he did it all without a gun. And that’s when the show first aired when Eisenhower was in the White House. Andy was cutting-edge! That was, Andy might say, a fair piece of years ago!

There’s an episode where Opie and his friends sell something called “Miracle Salve.”  One of Opie’s buddies, Trey, has been threatened with being “blacklisted” for not selling enough of this worthless salve. The boys don’t know what it means to be blacklisted. Opie guesses his dad will know, so they run off to the sheriff’s office to ask Andy. Andy is out on a call, but they find Barney asleep at his desk.

After waking Barney from a dead slumber, they ask him, “What’s a blacklist?” As he always does, Barney tries to sound more intelligent than he is: “It’s when the party of the first part does something to keep the party of the second part from being able to get a job.” Now the boys are confused. Trey needs this job. Who’s the party of the first part? Some fly-by-night salesmen are taking advantage of the kids, who need summer jobs, to get them to sell their salve.

Barney comes up with this bright idea. He’ll write a letter to the salespeople in Mount Pilot, pretending to be a lawyer, telling them to cease and desist from threatening his clients Opie and Trey. Why is Barney going to do this? He’ll meet one official letter with another. Barney poses his strategy in the form of a question: How do you fight fire? The boys answer with a hose! No! Barney exclaims, “with fire!”  Andy eventually returns, and they run the whole plan by him.  Barney asks him the same question. How do you fight fire? Andy, too says,” with a hose!” Barney, even more frustrated, says, “with fire.”

That’s where we are this morning.  Are we like Andy and Barney having a debate? How do you fish for people? Do we do it with a hose or with fire? Those are not exactly our options, but you get the point. There is the practical answer, which is time-tested, genuine, and makes sense. There’s also the idiomatic, colloquial expression that sounds good when you’re sitting on a bench whittling with your buddies.  We want to find those two answers, specifically those regarding being a follower of Jesus.

Last week we talked about being and becoming excited about Jesus. How long has it been since you were eager to tell someone else about Jesus? What would it take for you to invite someone to church to say, “Come and see Jesus with me.”  Have you ever been as excited about Jesus as you’ve ever been about the things that most excite you in your life? That was last week.

This week we’re taking that one step further. What does it mean to be called to be a disciple? And what are the best ways to reach more disciples? Do we fish for people the same way we fish for fish (i.e., fight fire with fire or with a hose)? Those are the two big questions raised by Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ calling of his first four disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Embedded in those questions, others ought to come to mind as we look for more profound answers. What does Matthew mean when he says, “immediately?”  I know what I mean when I think of “immediate” or “Immediately.”  Does Matthew mean the same thing? Did these guys literally drop their tools, abandon their families, and walk away like zombies to follow Jesus without so much of a goodbye to their families and friends?

Popular movies about the Bible like to leave people with that impression. However, suppose you read a little further in the text. In that case, you see Matthew’s definition of immediacy means something closer to this: Peter, Andrew, James, and John started a lifelong conversation on that day, at that time and that place, with their families and friends, that led to their becoming full-time followers (who asked others to come and see) of Jesus Christ. Read four more chapters and you see that Jesus’ definition of immediate doesn’t mean what you think it means.

The essential words Jesus utters in this passage involve Peter’s (and the other’s) transition from fishermen to disciples. We have to understand the nature of that transition to understand Matthew’s definition of immediacy and how Jesus will immediately (pun intended) show them his fishing methods can yield large catches of people.

Let’s talk about fishing methods on the Sea of Galilee for just a moment. I know a little about this because the fishermen on Ocracoke also used net fishing methods like Peter, James, and John. The fisherman who lived directly across from our church on the island would string his nets across his front yard and mend them, just as Matthew described Peter mending his nets in this passage. I’d walk out my office door and see the Bible happening right before my eyes. I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee, and these methods came alive when we lived on the Outer Banks. Nets require constant mending and upkeep. It takes skill and stamina to stay up all night, throw them out, and bring them back into rickety boats.

I’m going to do an Andy/Barney thing for a moment. What’s the goal of the fishing net? It’s to capture and ensnare as many dumb and unsuspecting fish as possible in your net and hoist them onto the deck of your boat, so deprived of oxygen that they quickly die. Once dead, they can be sold to fish merchants, and people can buy the fish and eat them.  This is what net fishermen do. They aren’t like Bill Dance in a bass boat with a depth finder. 1st century fishing methods are still in use in many places around the world today. Throw out the net and hope to God it lands over a school of fish or shrimp dumb enough to swim into your net. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. Being a good fishermen is not something that happens to you because of good luck, weather, and years of experience. Fishing is arbitrary. Use your common sense here: When Jesus said to them, from now on, you will stop being fishers of fish and be fishers of people do you think Jesus wanted them to substitute what they usually did in their quest for fish except literally do that now for people?

Was Jesus asking them (and by extension us) to use nets to capture unsuspecting people, lure them into our communities, suck the life from them, throw them onto our decks, gut them of their hearts and souls, and tell them not to be whom God created to be? Once in our net, you’re not a fish; you’re money, a number, and anything other than whom God created you to be. Do you honestly think that’s what Jesus meant when he said you’ll be fishing for people, as it was when you were fishing for fish? Because if you do that, you are going to run everybody off. That’s like saying you fight fire with more fire, not a hose!

You fish for people by bringing people together and not by cutting people off from their families but by bringing their families in.  Here’s how I know Peter, Andrew, James, and John, didn’t drop their tools and walk off like zombies.  The Bible tells me so.  I keep reading—just four chapters over in Matthew 8.  Peter had a Jewish mother-in-law.  You don’t just leave your wife to follow a charismatic even if his Jesus of Nazareth.  He’s got a mother-in-law.  That means he’s got a wife and a reasonable guess that a married Jewish man in the first century will probably have a couple of kids. Is Jesus of Nazareth, the most remarkable man in the world, going to ask a married man to abandon his wife, kids, and sick mother-in-law? Is that the kind of thing Jesus would do? Or, as in Matthew 8, he would heal Peter’s mother-in-law and invite the whole family to the Jesus movement.

Suddenly, now stay with me, he’s caught Peter, Peter’s wife, Peter’s Mother-in-Law, and Peter’s children. If the same pattern is repeated for Andrew, James, and John, Jesus has caught approximately 20 people. Talk about fishing for people. He’s gone from one person (himself) to, most likely, 20 or more, by healing and being gracious to Peter’s mother-in-law. He wanted to meet Peter’s entire family. It wasn’t a one and done operation. When Jesus opens up a space for conversation, the idea of immediacy takes on a whole new dimension. It’s more like, “Let’s immediately go home for dinner.” 

No one is captured in a net and forcibly brought into the fishermen’s boat. We don’t have any nets. I didn’t see any when we were putting out or putting away the Christmas decorations. We have a few fishermen in the church, and they use poles. There aren’t any net fishermen, as on Ocracoke, regularly mending nets, going out each night to catch shrimp to sell to local restaurants.

Though shame, guilt, and the church can cast modern-day nets, we must be careful. We can quickly revert to fishing for fish instead of people. We want to grow through warmth, charm, love, and invitation. So often, though, churches find it easier to get people on the boat through shame and guilt. You know what I mean: you better get here, get in the net, or you’re going to hell. Change your ways or else. You’re a dirty rotten, low-down sinner; God hates you, you don’t come to church, and you’re bound for damnation. Do you know why you got COVID, cancer, or other diseases?  It’s because you don’t come to church or didn’t pray hard enough.  The list could go on and on. People say those things. Let’s try not to. That’s not how you fish for people. People aren’t fish. People deserve our best. Jesus gave us his best. He gave us his life. Let us expand by reaching out to anyone and everyone who wants to be in our boat.  We don’t have to capture people. Evangelism isn’t warfare. As the Love Boat theme song says, “Come Aboard, we’ve been expecting you.”

–Richard Bryant

We Are All Dying

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We are all dying. Some of us are just going about it faster than others. Here’s the thing, though; you don’t know how quickly you’ve been dying until it occurs. Death happens to you; you don’t happen to it. The 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne said this: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately.” The Roman orator and statesman Cicero put it another way. To philosophize (or, in my case, to theologize) is to learn how to die.” I’m in school every day. My dad has cancer, people I went to high school with are dying, colleagues are going into cardiac arrest, my denomination is on life support, and who knows how long I’ve got. If I do the math with the meds I take and the average life expectancy of someone in my shoes, I should move from the parsonage to a tent in the cemetery. Believe me; I’m not being morbid; I’m only considering ways to save my family money.

If you read through anything I’ve written, you know it’s been a brutal fall and winter for my family and congregation. COVID, cancer, and related misery have taken their toll. When combined with the suffering we want to remember worldwide, our hundred-plus-person prayer list is more than many of us can continue to bear. We are, as Psalm 40 says, in the mire, the mud. But, as I said a few weeks ago, we keep searching for a better way to pray.

My office phone rang at about 1:30 this afternoon. Someone had died. We would need to open their plot in the church cemetery to prepare for a funeral on Saturday. That’s how death works. I’m not talking about the biological mechanics of death. This person’s life and quality thereof ended long before his widow called.  Most of the dying process (biologically and spiritually) happens before the person physically dies. Grief comes at the graveside. Grief is the empty room. Grief is calling a name and hearing no response. Death is now. Death is a front-row seat to life shutting down, emotional walls being built, fears being conquered, and life being lived despite, well, despite.

To paraphrase the Baghavad-Gita, we are both life and death, coexisting simultaneously. Despite death, there is life. Despite life, death remains. When we pull back the simplistic Cartesian veil of existence, we find ourselves somewhere in the middle with each other. Scoot over and make some room. Each of us needs to find a place, a community, and a home in the community of learners. Why? Because no one will make it out alive, and it is from that community of those who remain that we will learn to carry our grief together.

–Richard Bryant

An Open Letter: “God’s Word” – Inerrant, Inspired, In Error, and Sometimes Just Plain Wrong

Dear Friends:

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As my church and others discern their way through the disaffiliation process, one phrase keeps bubbling to the surface, “God’s word.” I hear this question, “Don’t you take God’s word seriously?” or the statement, “God’s word says…”. These definitive proclamations about what the Bible does and doesn’t say are often followed by things that aren’t in the Bible. As a trained pastor, I’m met with open hostility, anger, and disbelief when I say, “Actually, the Bible says…” Why would I lie? Do I look like George Santos? Double-check me; here’s the Bible! To acknowledge the Bible has many levels of meaning and competing genres doesn’t change my understanding of Jesus’ salvific work.

Some respond to this assertion as if I’m trying to twist God’s words to fit a specific theological or political agenda. That’s what I’ve been told. Actually, I’m explaining how words are translated, how the meaning of words has changed over time, and how translators bring cultural biases to translations. You’d be surprised how angry people get when they’re told these fundamental realities. Humans don’t like having their assumptions challenged. I’m writing this letter because I’m tired of trying to make God’s word come alive in ways beyond the fundamentalist-literalist echo chamber. I bid this task farewell. I’m done. I’m tired.

The Bible is one attempt to tell humanity who (a collection of authors, writing in different languages, lands, and over centuries) its authors believe God to be. I wish it were as simple as some in my congregation understand “God’s word” as something delivered from upon high, without explanation, in English, ready to be implemented, without context or nuance in the 21st century. The Bible is not God’s word. The Bible is comprised of our words about someone (or something) we call God. In some places, the words are inspired. In others, they are in error. Nowhere are they inerrant.

The major and minor prophets were often the first to recognize the magnitude of trying to “speak God’s words.” Mistakes, they realized, would lead to deadly consequences. Not only would they place their own lives in peril, but the fate of nations rested upon their clarity and purpose of understanding and communicating “God’s words.” God’s words were not to be taken lightly or for granted. So, as we read God’s words, it is natural to see those who speak and hear them and how they are understood change and evolve. Our response to God’s first words will not be the same as God’s words in Egypt, Babylon, or after the return from captivity. The context will matter. We will hear incorrectly. Something will be lost in transmission and translation. This is not about simple inconsistencies. At times, the words will be just plain wrong. Here is where we must have the courage to acknowledge where the text is not inerrant but in error.

For example, in 1st Samuel 15, God commands Saul to annihilate the Amalekites, noting he should not spare the women and children. This is genocide. Saul (at God’s prompting) is a war criminal on par with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Vladimir Putin. This text of terror is inconsistent with Jesus’ ethic of peace in the New Testament, but this is about far more than the textual inconsistencies throughout the Bible. This is about right and wrong. 1 Samuel 15 is a text in error; God’s command is wrong, and Saul’s actions are evil. God’s words can never be justified because of the inherent brutality it asks the reader to accept at face value if we are to treat God’s word as inerrant.

The idea of “God’s word” as an easily defensible, moral reality when even a single instance of genocide stands at the heart of the Old Testament (out of many) is one reason people like me have a hard time identifying as believers in an inerrant Bible. This is not because we’re twisting God’s word to fit a specific political agenda but because “God’s word” as an inerrant, morally defensible concept is a morally indefensible position to hold in the early 21st century.  God’s word still inspires me. I follow Jesus’ word. For me, it’s not about consistency. Christians will never be able to reconcile all the Bible’s inconsistencies. However, I do not have to accept that God condones the death of innocent children or that it is a permissible or good thing. I won’t do it. I can’t live with seeing God’s name attached to mass murder and genocide and being expected to be okay with the brutality running through the heart of Christian tradition. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll repeat it. The Bible, in so many places, is not inerrant. It’s in error. Murder, death, and slavery are wrong whether it is condoned by the God of Israel and recorded in the Bible or done by human beings and reported on the news.

As we divide ourselves into denominational oblivion, maybe it’s time to make one more division. Biblical Christianity, where we worship a book written by human beings, one full of flaws, too much death, and four books about a Jesus that most Christians are happy to ignore. Then there’s Christ Christianity, where we worship Christ, go toward Christ, and stop pretending God’s words are God.

Yours truly,

–Richard Bryant