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

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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

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

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