Grounding Our Faith in the World Caused By This New Realty

  1. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Disease is disease.  It knows no ideology or strategy other than the mathematical reproduction of itself.
  2. Faith asks us to look beyond fault. That’s different from ignoring responsibility (personal or otherwise).  The spring breakers come to mind.
  3. We have narrow definitions of fellowship. Biblical discipleship probably included more social distancing that we like to admit.  Fellowship with God and with each other is two different things.  God is present in our absence.
  4. This is hard and may get much harder. At the present, for the most of us, the virus is an inconvenience. We need to be better at having schedules moved, life cancelled, and our world rearranged.  Are we being asked to live under pressure or live better quality lives that we might normally experience?  That’s a matter of perspective.
  5. Jokes about toilet paper scarcity are stupid.
  6. Things feel out of control.  We can’t control everything.  Stop.
  7. When, we need to be prepared for dealing with death at a distance. We’re used to bodies and death rituals. We may not have this in many cases.
  8. Life will outweigh death but the death see will be hard.
  9. Pray and talk.
  10. Listen and ponder.
  11. Take it seriously.   More seriously than schism, conferences, or anything related to the church.  There will be time for our personal chaos on down the road.  It’s life and death time.

Richard Bryant

Jesus, Social Distancing, and Health Care Mark 1:16-37

At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, a medical crisis in Galilee overwhelms Jesus. Everything seemed to happen at once. It was the beginning of his ministry. Imagine launching a company and all the new things that go along with opening a business. First, you have to hire staff. It can be challenging to develop job descriptions, ideas for how big the company needs to function, and then look at resumes, all before interviewing people. That’s before setting out to speak to a single person about the kingdom of God. Until this part of the plan takes hold, success depends on one person doing all the work. Every aspect of the ministry depends on Jesus and the driving force of his personality. Before he’s called the first disciple, he’s already exhausted. (We know this because he tells us.)

John baptized Jesus, and the pace of Jesus’ life and ministry went from 1st to fourth gear overnight. He saw the need for help and he called disciples to join his ministry team. Whatever thought, planning, and ideas Jesus put into calling the disciples (people like Peter, James, and John), it came down to one question: Will you follow me? Jesus can make the distinction between fishing for people and actual fishing. Still, it’s a question of following Jesus, as a rabbi (or teacher), to build a movement around the idea we now understand as the kingdom of God. That’s the question: will you follow me? The question is not: “will you discuss following me, will you consider supporting me, will you follow me for a couple of hours a week on Sunday morning, or will you follow me when you like the way the church is going? No, Jesus asks a simple question: will you follow me? Are we able to give Jesus an honest answer?

If not, why not? What’s stopping us from being honest with Jesus? Will you follow me? And that’s Jesus of the Gospel, not the Jesus of our filters. Are we ready to follow Jesus?

Once Jesus gathers followers, people who said “yes” without context and explanation, they begin the work of the kingdom of God. What’s the first thing they do? Does Jesus start preaching a message of fire and brimstone? Do these first disciples warn others of the dangers of hell? No, they do none of these things. Remember, the pace hasn’t stopped.

First, the group goes to see and observe Jesus heal a man with an unclean spirit. The man is possessed. Or, as we would say in our day in time, he’s mentally ill. Wouldn’t we say that an evil spirit possesses an addict?  We all would! Jesus’ exorcism, his first action in Mark’s gospel, is an exercise in mental health treatment. Jesus is caring for the man’s soul. The sad thing about this story is we are never encouraged to see this story about health care, mental health care, and human compassion. We hear “exorcism” and think scary movies. How about we believe in Jesus making a man’s life better and whole, which is what the Bible says occurs. Jesus, the healer, is a practical healer. Jesus begins his ministry by doing two things: preaching and health care. We see it here in Mark 1. Yes, this is still jam-packed Mark 1.

The pace has not let up. All these things are occurring one right after another. It is as if Jesus is working at a pace to meet the needs of a spiritual and public health crisis. Jesus keeps going, and the action is about to pick up to an even higher intensity.

After the story of the healing of the possessed man, Mark tells us, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” Did you catch that? As soon as he’d healed the man, everybody wanted to come to seek medical care and be treated by Jesus. Jesus knew this would happen but it also goes the needs people had the sheer volume of people who would be coming to find Jesus in the coming hours.
How would he prepare to see them?

Where would Jesus encounter them? Would there be enough beds and disciples to listen to their needs? The one thing he wouldn’t do is ignore them or minimize their concern. They were why he was here.
After quick consideration, it seemed the best place to go was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. I can only imagine what that phone call was like. “I’m coming home with my new Rabbi Jesus and a few other friends, and there might be crowds of sick strangers gathering at the door looking for medical care.” Her house in Capernaum isn’t huge, so I’m guessing this must have been the most significant thing happening in town.

Mark, as I’ve always said, has a sense of immediacy that is lacking in the other gospels. After the man’s healing, it was, “At once.” Now, as they are on the way to Peter’s mothers-in-law, it is “as soon as.” This sense of urgency is essential. There is a near exhausting pace for all the participants involved. Mark is doing his best to convey this.

Once they arrive at the house, it is like they are in the worse Corona ward. Mark says, “Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her.” Fevers and respiratory illnesses were all around him. Mark continues, “That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases.”

All-day and night, Jesus worked to heal sick people in the most conventional way we understand medicine to this day. Given the pace, you that you realize things have been going in this chapter, how exhausted must you think he feels? Given what he’s seen and heard from his patients and neighbors, where must his mind be? I ask these questions because Mark gives us an answer. We don’t have to guess how Jesus might feel or burden ourselves with a faulty Christology.

Jesus needs a break. We might even say he’s opting for some social distancing, to recharge his body and mind. He can’t care for others if he can’t care for himself. After it all seems to be over (and we are still in Mark 1) look at what Jesus does, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus, in the midst of carrying for the sick, isolated himself. This bothered his disciple friends. Verse 36, “And Simon and his companions hunted for him (they wanted to keep Jesus on a leash). Everyone is searching for you.” Here’s the thing: Jesus knows where he is. But even Jesus needs some space to pray. Jesus’ friends get so wrapped up in the chaos and anger. Jesus sees the need. Let’s look for the human need at the heart of the kingdom of God.

Richard Bryant

The Reason for the Season (New)

Once we acknowledge Jesus as the “reason for the season,” what comes next? Can we leave such an important piece of information unattended and expect it to explain itself? No, we cannot. To make a confessional statement about the incarnation and the identity of Jesus requires multiple next steps. Once we’ve declared, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” what do we do? What’s expected of someone who accepts “Jesus is the reason for the season”?

Firstly, we are on the hook for living like we believe the statement to be true. We made a truth claim, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” (One of the most important truth claims in human history.) Do our lives reflect this reality? Are we on Christian autopilot, or are we living like Jesus frames our approach to gift-giving, encountering the poor, and helping the oppressed? In short, are we rejecting ideas antithetical to the infant’s reason for being?  It is easy to say a catchy phrase and get on with our lives?

Secondly, Jesus is not an abstract reason. Jesus is not a tool to be used in a culture war/war on Christmas argument. Jesus is the living breathing son of God, made flesh as the child of Joseph and Mary. Those who first came to Jesus were drawn to Bethlehem by scripture, relationships, angels, friends, and family. A quest for reasons didn’t lead the shepherds to Christ. They were driven by the idea of divine prophetic fulfillment, and a realization of God’s work for humanity was being accomplished in Bethlehem. To isolate Jesus as the single rhyming phrase “reason for the season” undercuts and devalues all God was hoping to achieve in and through the incarnation. If we’ll talk about Jesus as a cliche, who’s to say we won’t live like he’s one as well? I can imagine nothing worse than a cliched Jesus.

So who is Jesus? He is everything!  Jesus is more than a single reason representing the intricate beauty of God’s desire to be reconciled with humanity that was first unveiled in Bethlehem.

Richard Lowell Bryant

This Is What Christmas Looks Like

I love the Nativity story not because it is warm and fuzzy, but because of its overall message of perseverance against cruelty. Whether it’s the abject cruelty of Herod’s population policies or the brutality of the innkeepers “no,” at each step of the way, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

That’s the Christmas I know and love. No, this is not the Christmas where you’re worried about perfect food, decorations, or guests. I’m talking about the one where the abject cruelty of the world has attempted to intervene somewhere between God’s love and salvation only to realize that goodness triumphs over evil.

The original Christmas story is an overwhelming experience. To see the forces of light and dark play themselves out can be frightening and exhilarating. Here, before our eyes, the very emotions, ideas, and people in which Jesus spoke come to life. Will we respond in a way consistent with the gospel? Will we do justice amidst the injustice that surrounds us?

The phone rang at my office, mid-morning. The caller id said his name was Eddie. When I answered, he said he was out of gas. Stuck in the parking lot of the Piggy-Wiggly, he might have enough to make it to the gas station down the street. Could I help him? He’d been here for work that fell through, and now he needed to get back home, which was at least a couple of hours down the road.

I met him at the gas station. Eddie was working on checking his oil and power steering fluid. He wanted to take care of this minivan. It was also his home. In the place he parked, he risked the van being broken into at night, damaged, and parts robbed. He needed new windshield wipers.

That would mean a trip to the auto parts store. We drove across the street from the gas station. Eddie was able to find some oil, power steering fluid, and wipers. The men from the shop even helped us install the wipers. If it rained, he could see. His home would be safer on the small, two-lane roads he’d be traveling.

“I’m going to make it,” he said. “I have to keep trying.” I suspect those same words came from Joseph and Mary as they traveled to and from Bethlehem.

Christmas looks like many things. Our sanitized images of mangers, stables, babies, parents, and wise men are one set of pictures. Our love of tradition should not cause us to forget the reality which brings us together in Advent and Christmas. I think Christmas also looks like my encounter with Eddie. It is unpredictable and sometimes tragic. Christmas is good people struggling against poverty, homelessness, and trying to make a place in a hostile world. That’s the essence of the Christmas story found in the Gospels. If we can’t see the modern aspects of the ancient Christmas story, then we’re missing an opportunity to appreciate the Incarnation of Christ. We’ve become a obstacle to the Gospel instead of a means of sharing the message. Nobody wants to be an obstacle, especially at Christmas. Help someone along, past the Christmas barriers we’ve created so that the Incarnation may be the most visible reality in our world.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Word of Encouragement from Richard

Thanksgiving is a time when the word “gratitude” becomes spoken perhaps more than at any other time of year. We are asked to be grateful. Some families have traditions where they go around the table, and each member shares something for which they are thankful. Clergy persons like me encourage our flock to make gratitude a priority, not just on the fourth Thursday in November but all year round. Then someone flips the switch, and suddenly it’s Black Friday.

I remember studying Armenian in Yerevan, Armenia, during the summer of 1998. The noun for gratitude(երախտագիտություն) is one of the longest words in the Armenian language. Sure, there are 16 letters plus words here or there, but this was one we needed to know.

As language students, thousands of miles away from home, we were dependent on the hospitality of others for most of our basic needs. The ability to communicate our gratitude in word and deed was crucial to our experience. We needed to know how to say we were thankful and be understood. It was also important to show thanks in a manner that matched the length and psychological impact of such an important word. As we learned how to say “thank you,” we learned how to be “grateful” in another culture. Getting “thank you” right became as important as spelling and pronouncing “yerakhtagitut’ yun”.

Is there anything we need to learn or relearn about gratitude before we meet up with our family and friends next week?

–Richard Lowell Bryant

10 Tips for Better Living

A Pet I Love

1. Change the windshield washer fluid in your car. Yes, this is both a metaphor and a practical admonition. Work on clearing obstacles, smudges, and other icky things blocking your vision. You will be happier and safer.

2. Make all of your expressions of thanks, from the drive-in window to the condolence line, equally sincere.  Gratitude needs to multidimensional and felt for the person hearing the words “thank you” to know you mean what you say.

3. Learn to love a pet.  Love is hard.  A dog or cat (for example) will work with you as you learn.

4. Become a better conversationalist. This means work on your listening skills. Learn how to ask better questions.

5. Don’t let healthy admiration become idolatry.

6. Take care of your body, mind, and spirit.  We need you.  You matter.

7. Wear comfortable shoes.  The journey is long.

8. Keep a record of your days. Whether you call it a journal or notebook doesn’t matter. Leave a record of your time on Earth.

9. Find a way to give joy back to the other people. How can you serve others, give back, and enrich the lives of others in unexpected ways?

10. Take fewer selfies. Share more pictures of the world around you.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

Important Ideas to Remember

1. Listen to the people around you. Honor their journeys. Your life will be better for it.
2. Pass on the kindness you’ve received.
3. Let your Thank You really mean, “I am grateful”.
4. Take fewer selfies. Take more pictures of leaves, trees, and clouds.
5. Stay hydrated.

–Richard Bryant

The Late Modern Produce Machine

 

Bienvenue to the
produce machine.
I am broke do tell,
even today,
because I can’t spell:
zookene,
maters,
bale peprs,
taters,
hallo peno peprs,
or
them small blak things,
I confuse with large flies,
that look something like,
Little gray paes with black eyes.

–Richard Bryant

Some Confessions in Honor of Saint Augustine

Earlier this week, we remembered the 1665th birthday of one of the most important theologians in the Christian tradition.  Saint Augustine of Hippo, the Neoplatonic philosopher and Bishop of Hippo bridged the gap between late Roman antiquity and the early Church.  We are who we are because of Augustine helped us become.

One of St. Augustine’s early works was The Confessions.  It is a classic work of Christian theology and autobiography.  In short, he defines the genre.  The Confessions may best known for this quote, where Augustine says, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”  What a rascal!

In honor of Augustine’s birth, here are a few of my own Confessions.

  1. After twenty plus years of full-time ministry, I feel awkward and self-conscious when I pray with my hands in the air. I’m more comfortable using my words and leaving my hands down.
  2. Some phrases become part of our entrenched prayer vocabulary. We use them so often they can lose the beauty of their intended meaning. I’m looking at you, “hedge of protection”.
  3. Outside the church, people don’t understand our “insider” language. We shouldn’t make ourselves challenging to understand. We have a vocabulary, by al means. However, everyone should be able to learn as they go.
  4. We need to talk more about Mark 3:20-35. Is Jesus the crazy relative we feel more comfortable trying to contain with our standards of conformity? I think so.
  5. I miss Sunday School. Specifically, I mean coloring pictures of Jesus on Sunday morning. Now I spend my Sunday mornings getting ready for worship. Coloring was fun.
  6. It is possible to take the Bible seriously but not literally? I feel like I say this all the time. Is anyone listening?
  7. Intinction is my preferred method of giving and receiving Holy Communion. It may not be the “old way” (of American Methodism), but it is the “oldest way,” which Jesus likely knew.
  8. Were we to compare United Methodism to a rare wine, I’ll prefer the 1738 Herrnhutt from Saxony. It’s a husky, smooth blend of English and German piety.
  9. A relationship with Jesus is, by default, a personal relationship. You don’t define any of the other meaningful relationships in your life (spouse, children, or parents) as personal. They are simply relationships. Be cautious of jargon (this goes for any part of your life), focus on the substance. Be in a relationship with God.
  10. It is easy to walk past a resurrection moment or to go in search of a Resurrection encounter only to realize; God’s right beside you, riding shotgun, ready to talk, and up for the journey.

Richard Lowell Bryant