For Jordan, My Daughter

Grandfather and Granddaughter (author not pictured)

I wish,
I could outline the edges,
Of an unknown map,
For you to follow,
From this day forward,
A journey for you to take,
Where you will not be alone,
Or ever bored,
And someone will find you,
Because you make great sticky buns,
Not because they’ve spotted your hair,
Or want to play your Xbox one,
I want to draw a map,
That leads people,
To turn right,
To you,
Because you are you.

–Richard Bryant

Tragedy, History, or Comedy (Luke 18:9-14)


I want to take you back to English class for a moment.  Do you remember the First Folio?  Have you heard that term? The First Folio was and is the definitive collection of the works of William Shakespeare.  Compiled some seven years after his death by a group of his friends, it contained all his plays because as Ben Jonson said, “the man’s work deserved to be remembered”.  There are 233 known copies of the First Folio in existence today with 82 residing at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.  It’s one of the world’s most important books.  One of the many reasons the Folio is so important is the way it characterizes Shakespeare’s plays.  When Jonson and company first gathered Shakespeare’s manuscripts, they were the first to decide, “well, these are all tragedies and they should be together, these are all history plays, and these are comedies.”  Up until then, some people called King Lear a history, others said it was a tragedy.   When they printed the folio, they made a definitive call that’s stood the test of time.

So, you find yourself asking, how does this early morning detour through Shakespeare relate to the parable in question?  Everything, it has everything to do with the question at the heart of the First Folio.  For if we want to understand the question Jesus is asking us to consider, we must know what is it that we are reading.  Is this parable of two men praying on the steps of the temple tragedy, history, or comedy?

Remember, Jesus’ parables go to wild extremes to make points that we should be able to see on our own.  Parables redirect our attention to ideas that are right under our noses.   For us to see what’s right in front of our faces, Jesus tells stories of God’s outlandish love among deplorable people.  You know the one about the kid who runs away from home with his dad’s money? That’s definitely a tragedy.  Or the one about a worker who paid the people who started at 5 pm the same money as the people who started at 9 am; what kind of comedy was that?

Now there’s today’s story, one about two men praying on the steps of the temple.  People I trust, people who know about the temple in the first century have made a convincing argument that people didn’t pray outside on the temple steps.  We’ve all seen protestors at churches and government buildings. People protesting outside churches is disconcerting.   I saw the Westboro Baptist Church people lining the road to Edenton Street UMC for Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral.  It was awful.  That’s why I believe those who say the temple authorities wouldn’t look to kindly on public displays of piety on the steps of such an important religious building.  You never knew when things would get out of control and when the Romans would swoop in with their militarized policing.

When Jesus talks about two men outside the temple, I believe he’s speaking in one of those extreme metaphors.  It’s not so much about the men themselves as what their jobs and personalities represent.  The steps are a stage for a play with two characters, with two histories, and two prayers.  Welcome to the Tragedy of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

On the surface, this is a sad story; two men reduced to justifying themselves before God in public.  If your idea of religion is reduced to such gross displays of public piety, something is beyond wrong.  The entire premise of the parable is tragic, don’t you think?  I read it, I see it on the stage of my mind and want to ask, “How did you two get to this point in your lives?”   One is judgmental, one is self-loathing, and nothing seems right.  It’s hard to read or see this parable and want to go eat your Wheaties.  Part of this is because we’re conditioned to dislike both Pharisees and Tax Collectors, right?  Pharisees are the bad guys who opposed Jesus, aren’t they?  Tax collectors are the sellouts who worked for the Romans and were the first century equivalent of the IRS.

To a first century Jewish audience, a Pharisee wouldn’t have been a bad guy.  We’ve had 2000 years of negativity programmed, I know.  But to Jesus’ listeners, the Pharisee would have been the guy they naturally would have looked up to.  The Tax Collector was the traitor.  He sold out and collaborated with the occupying Romans to squeeze tax money from people who couldn’t afford to pay one extra shekel.

The real tragedy occurs when the guy who is supposed to be the leader, the religious superstar, turns on his own people.  Which, funny enough, is how Shakespeare does it too.  It’s awkward and uncomfortable for me to hear him tell about how he fasts and gives his 1/10th.  Yet those are facts, simply stating them isn’t wrong or a sin.  I don’t know how socially acceptable it is to be so vocal about one’s piety.  But they are only facts.  The real tragedy is in the transition.  “Thank God I’m not like everyone else,” he says.  Then he names who he’s grateful he’s not like:  crooks, evildoers, democrats, republicans, adulterers, and even tax collectors.  Those are not facts; those are judgments about human beings.  This is the tragedy of the parable.

Here’s one of the insidious aspects of self-aggrandizing piety; whether uttered in public or in the silence of our minds:  it often leads us to judge other human beings.  When you say those two words, “at least” you can go in a couple of different directions.  You can take the course of the Pharisee and say, “at least I’m not like the people I despise, hate, and preferred God rejected outright.”  Or, you can take a different path and say, “at least I’ve been blessed to a point that I can help people who need help.”  At least, you might say, “I have a roof over my head and food on my table can I do something for someone else.”  There are different ways of saying at least, ways which do not turn our faith into a tragedy.

Like Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, there are two main characters.  Jesus’s audience would have felt torn.  They wanted to love and respect the Pharisee but he had judged them to be faithless.  Now, the writer of the play, asks them to take a second look at someone they have been bred to hate.  You don’t get better drama than this.  This is pulling at people’s souls.  Jesus, you’re asking me to look at something so repulsive that I can barely even give it a name.  This is the tax collector.

He knows who he is, what he is, and how people feel about his work.  There is a distance, both physical and spiritual between he and the Pharisee.  Because of his work, his fear, the Pharisees’ judgment, and society’s condemnation the Tax Collector is cut off from the physical manifestation of God on Earth-the Temple. Do we see the absurdity of this moment?  We, human beings, created by God have created hoops by which others we deem unworthy may or may not connect with their creator?  I ask you, as I think this parable does, what sense does that make? Is it our purpose to decide who is worthy of God’s love?  Is it our place to put people in their place, as we see their place?

Jesus is saying, that which is “wholly other” to us is “us”.  Without that which is different, there is no us.  The body of Christ is built on difference, which as the tax collector says, begins with a recognition of the need for mercy.

Schism Doesn’t Mean Failure: It Means We’re Alive


Is it possible, for a moment, to discuss the idea of schism without attaching any theological or political baggage?  I realize this may be an impossible task.  Schisms, by their very nature, are driven by theological crises and political agendas.  It is hard to look at “schism” beyond our motivations for advocating or denying the need for division.  Perhaps this is why we are warned so eloquently against schism by those who practice it so well.

John Wesley was a schismatic.   In the plainest language possible, the Church of England wasn’t good enough for him or his vision.  With flimsy authority and a well developed ego, his actions created a schism in the Anglican Church.  He ordained two priests in 1784, a major schismatic act by any standard.

History has judged those actions kindly.  Perhaps it’s the political season or the “fact checking” so common at the end of the day’s news cycle; for one reason or another I cannot except Bishop Carder’s quote from Wesley’s Sermon “On Schism” as factually accurate.

To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. . . . It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. 

He’s lying, not telling the truth, and distorting reality.  OK, he may not be lying but he’s certainly not expressing a standard he ever applied to himself.  Should I go on?  John Wesley’s career and our denominational presence are premised on one group of Christians separating themselves (over time but consciously) from a tradition believed to have gone cold.  We all preach to ourselves.  This, however, is different.  It’s far more, “schism is bad for others but just fine for me.”  The incongruence between the traditions defining Methodism’s past and our current fears over schism forgets our heritage of division

Anglicanism is born out of 16th century European power politics and a single divorce.  The Anglican movement is itself a century’s long struggle for legitimacy.  Wesley came from a long line of Anglican dissenters; called non-conformists.  These proto-Methodists couldn’t accept the state’s long arm of influence in the Church of England.  Wesley came from this schismatic stock.  So yes, he knows of what he speaks when it comes to schism.  Nonetheless, are contemporary United Methodists looking for unity in the life of a man whose career was defined by schism?

Then there’s scripture.  Creation itself is an act of schism. Genesis tells us that God divides the light from the dark.  When God separates Abraham from his homeland and tell him to go west, that is the defining schismatic moment in western civilization.  When Joseph is torn from his family and sent to Egypt, schism occurs so healing occurs later.  The Bible is replete with God’s schismatic movements.  If we see and fear schism as failure, then I believe we fear God at work.

I’ve just lived through another hurricane.  I’ve seen things torn apart.  A hurricane is about schism.  It’s a fact of life.  As I sit among the division of the schism called Matthew, I don’t deny its reality or pray the next storm won’t come.  I try to put the pieces back together.  It’s not failure.  It’s living and as I’ve heard so many times over the past few days, “we’ll put it back together”.  Putting it back together, as my neighbors say, means “I love you”.  From where I’m sitting, love grows out of schism.  So bring it on, schism.  It doesn’t mean we’ve failed.  It means we’re alive.


*For the record, I’m not a Wesleyan Covenant Association member or supporter.  


Demanding Justice-A Free Verse Opening to Luke 18:1-8


Certain words,
Grouped in one, two, and three,
Laid down, evenly spread
Righteously and rhetorically,
Those cannot help,
But to be
Unsung notes,
For unwritten songs,
Seeking new tones,
Clear and crisp,
Listen now,
Or they gone in a whisp’,
Like autumn’s first cold,
“What did he say?”
Just three words,
“Then Jesus told.”
One, two, three,
Now you see,
This story of patience,
And words;
Cannot be seen;
It must be sung-
It shall be heard,
A parable begun,
Justice to be done.

–Richard Bryant

What Are We Praying for When We “Pray about Hurricane Matthew”?


What are we praying for when we pray for those affected by or “about” Hurricane Matthew?  There should be some easy and simple answers.  After all, this happens on a regular basis.  Storms are a fact of life.  Even people I never see in church seem to be trying out prayer.  We’re praying for those in the path of the storm, those most directly affected by the wind and rain.  This covers lots of people and animals.  Without going into specifics, you’ve just prayed for the dogs, cats, Firefighters, EMT’s, linemen, people who refused to evacuate, people who did evacuate, and guys from the weather channel.  In this instance, praying for those in the path of Hurricane Matthew means you’re praying for upwards of 20 million people.  Is that how prayer is supposed to work?  In one fell swoop, we’ve covered it all, a bcc message to God and we’ve got it done?  Something about that approach to prayer makes me uncomfortable.

Here’s a second question, one that makes our Hurricane Prayers a little tricky.  Imagine, whether you’re on Facebook or in worship on Sunday morning, you’ve asked people to “pray for those in the path of the storm”.  OK, so what are we doing when we “pray for those in the path of the storm”?  It sounds good and the perfectly appropriate thing to say at a moment like this.  But what have we actually said or done?  Take a deep breath and step back for a moment.  At best, “praying for those in the path of the storm” is like a vague well-wish on a cheap greeting card, sent in someone’s general direction.  What are we praying for, from our perch of relative safety, while others suffer death and destruction?

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere.  If you wanted to find wonderful people condemned to live in the combined hells of poverty and corruption, it would be Haiti.  The 2006 Earthquake nearly destroyed the country.  They are completely dependent on international aid organizations, foreign governments, and the United Nations to maintain a government.  The last thing the Haitians need is a hurricane of any strength.  One might propose praying to God to turn the Hurricane away from Haiti.  I saw few prayers like that.  Here’s what I also know.  If we don’t see it on the news most people won’t care.  We care about what we see.  We also know that storms have a mind of their own.  Storms like people have free will, or so it seems.

So my question is this:  Are we praying for God to act against nature, for our self-preservation, the preservation of property, or perhaps ever time travel itself?  Are we praying to be returned to a place and time so that we might live as if the hurricane never existed?  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Privileged people like privileged prayers.  And from the moment we call forth the deity’s name, we are afloat on a sea of time no longer of our own control.  Beyond the glass which divides the sanctuary walls; our words (our “maybe not”) stand between Abraham’s “Why, God?” and Noah’s “Yes, God!” Thousands of years collapse into this single meditative moment.  We are human beings trying to understand the mysterious ways of the God we believe in and natural world created by this God.   Our prayers carry us back in time.

As each of those who preceded us and entered into a covenantal journey with the deity will attest; the status quo, today was preferred to the unknown future.   Self preservation, the now, and keeping things the same was seen as infinitely better than anything on the horizon.  It is within these emotions, between reticence and fear that our prayers begin to form.

Our prayers, even when confronted with God’s evolving future, often begin with the past firmly in mind.  Sure, using the vagaries of the present we may sound like we’ve prayed for 20 million people.  But is this what we’re really saying:

“God, do not change me or the world I know.  I want my needs, habits, and ideas to remain just where they were, before this Hurricane or whatever happens to be going on at this moment.”

What happens when God pulls us out of the present and takes us into the future?  What might that prayer sound like (especially as it relates to a Hurricane)?

Dear Lord,

Does it take a storm to make us vitally aware of your presence?

Does it take a storm to force us to say thank you to people who risk their lives?

Does it take the futility of humankind naming a storm for us to realize how powerful the forces of this planet truly are?

Does it take death and destruction for us to appreciate human life over property, technology, and material things?

Does it take evacuations for us to meet our neighbors and make new friends?

Does it take the wind and rain for us to realize you move in the stillness and silence after the clouds pass?

Forgive our ambivalence toward the irrelevance of tomorrow as we look only at the strangeness of our own version of today.

Help us to see the tenuous hope to which others grasp, bewildered by a despair we have never known, help us encounter those remote sounds and smells so they do not produce anxiety and fear in our hearts. 

Gracious God, You do not call us to accept death as a way of life for any of your children. 

We cannot do what we do alone.

Words alone are useless unless they are overwhelmed with love.  Forgive me when all I do is pray.  

I place these words on the shattered dreams of my recalcitrance, may they be embodied with love, placed with the risen Christ, who calls us to act, Jesus of Nazareth.



Perhaps, when I pray about Hurricane Matthew, I will pray something like that.


The Cone of Death


I do not like the cone of death,
Or the grim lines easily placed,
By men and women of lovely face,
I do not like the cone of death,
And will evacuate,
Finding a way,
To drag my dying weight,
Before the winds,
Begin to blow or ever abate,
No cosmological dictate,
Some weatherman’s whim,
An evil crimson sprawl,
This deathly pseudonym,
Rings, Howls, and Calls,
Like a phantom limb,
I do not like the cone of death,
This is my hurricane hymn.

–Richard Bryant

Putting the Genius Who Knows The Most About Sin in Charge of Salvation


Somewhere Between Mathew 4:9 and Matthew 4:10

“Yes,” said the tempter.  “I took full advantage of my knowledge of temptation and sin in order to test you.”  He paused for dramatic effect. Satan was a very good method actor.  “As was deemed fully legal and appropriate in my arrangement as the wandering adversary with your father,” he wanted to make the boy seem stupid and ill informed.

“I know what your deal was with my father and Job.  I also know how long you were able to deduct those temptations,” said the boy.

“Exactly,” he exclaimed!  “Why do think I’m the guy here today?”

“So why don’t you tell me?”

“No one knows sin, temptation, evil, malfeasance, and malevolence like me.  Who better to fix the sins of the world than a guy who is a genius when it comes to using sin laws and codes?  I’m the guy to change the sin codes permanently and forever, so it will benefit the little guys selling tents in Capernaum or silver in Ephesus. I know sin.   I’m a sin genius.  Sin is my first, last, and middle name.  If you want to fix sin, hire a sinner!”

Admittedly, this took the boy surprise.  Hire a sinner to save the world from sin.  All he would have to do was worship this fast talking tempter who claimed to know everything about salvation.

“Kid, you’re perfect.  No one is ever going to believe you when you talk about people sins, especially sins related to money.  Look at all the stuff I’ve done: Persia, Babylon, Rome, and the Egypt.  Tempter University.  I’m a financial and sin success.  You want to be in business with me.  Everything I touch turns to Gold.”

The kid thought for a second.  “Didn’t Babylon collapse and aren’t the Pharaoh’s all dead?”

“Wrong!  Lies told by my Greek competitors.  The Romans and I are working on new permits with Ptolemy and it’s going to be HUUUGE, so BIIGLY.  You won’t believe it.  So what’s it going to be?”

The kid from Nazareth thought about it.  It seemed pretty ridiculous to put a sinner in charge of sin.  The whole thing, this tempter, was really getting on his last nerve. So he said, “no I’m not going to worship you.  You’re not a genius.  I’m sticking with God.”

None-The Ninth Hour Richard’s Breviary



Gracious God,
Rework and realign the remains of this day.
In the hours of daylight which linger,
May we knit word-pictures,
Stories to tell,
Of Grace and abundance,
Of Love and Mercy,
In the places where hope has come unraveled.
Through your Spirit,
may we cross the divides which separate us from our neighbors;
may we answer the summons to be sent;
Across muddy roads, puddles, bridges, or busy streets,
For in these few feet, a broken world awaits,
For daily bread and forgiveness.
Help us, O God, to tell that story.
Thank you,


–Richard Bryant

*the Ninth Hour, is a fixed time of prayer of the Divine Office of almost all the traditional Christian liturgies. It usually consists of psalms and is said around 3 p.m. Its name comes from Latin and refers to the ninth hour of the day after dawn.